Tuesday, October 20, 2015

San Francisco Opera's Lucia di Lammermoor

Nadine Sierra as Lucia (photos by Cory Weaver).
A Wild and Stunning Lucia
October 16, 2015

If the Navy Seals were not enough to clue you in that Michael Cavanagh’s direction of this Lucia was going to be different, the great “reveal” of Lucia’s bloody dress was. Because it wasn’t just the dress, it was the bloody white sheets, and the bloody white canopy – the whole bedroom. And then soprano Nadine Sierra began the infamous mad scene, pulling the sheet behind her like a wedding train, revealing a nude body covered in stab marks. (That would be supernumerary Charlie Martinez, making an extremely disciplined SFO debut.)

Whatever the philosophical motives, the presence of an actual nude corpse had the effect of producing a silence even more absolute than usual. Sierra carved that silence with her sweet, mad lyric, matching the lovely cadenzas from flautist Julie McKenzie and applying her young face and ballerina figure to produce a Lucia much more frail than the usual. (Put more simply, she convinced me, at a couple of moments, that she truly had gone nuts.)

Cavanagh’s ideas are all over the place, but I’m not one to mind a little wildness, and one idea carries over the rest: the old clans of Scotland were really just corporations, with the same ability to spit out innocents who got in the way of their bottom lines. The members of Enrico Ashton’s court are dressed in severe black suit and tie. His office, an assemblage of black, silver and sharp angles, looks like a high-tech firm designed by Darth Vader. And the wedding contract is served up on a clipboard.

Piotr Beczala as Edgardo.
The corporate angle tends to strip the last layer of pretense from Lucia’s sorry situation. Brother Enrico (baritone Brian Mulligan) is using her to save his pitiful CEO butt. Even apparent friends like companion Alisa (mezzo Zanda Svede) and chaplain Raimondo (bass Nicolas Teste) are really just toeing the company line.

Mulligan’s forceful baritone serves the theme well, covering Enrico’s cowardice with a veneer of bluster (although my companion, La Diva, says he goes a little too far, with a certain “grabbiness” to his technique). Svede invests the thankless companion role with a certain two-faced flair, thanks in part to Mattie Ullrich’s fairly amazing red-and-white dress. Tenor AJ Glueckert gave Enrico’s henchman Normanno a delectable ferocity.

Piotr Beczala lent a passionate lirico spinto to Lucia’s lover, Edgardo, perhaps the only character truly on her side, and delivered in spades in the bitter final-act Larghetto, “Fra poco a me ricovero.” He and Lucia lacked that ineffable romantic chemistry, but he produced vocal chemistry aplenty, notably in the Act I duet with Lucia, “Verranno a te sull’aure,” and his and Enrico’s rather spine-tingling opening to the frozen-moment sextet, “Chi mi frena in tal momento.” The sheer architecture of the sextet continues to be a thrill to me, and the coordination between the singers, conductor Nicola Luisotti and his orchestra was scintillating.

Erhard Rom's design of Enrico's office.
Erhard Rom’s set and projection design created a few captivating images, using animated images from Scotland to convey a certain reality, and flats of faux marble that provided great mobility from one scene to another. (One provocative move was projecting images of famed female statues onto the faux marble.)

Compared with the corporate black, Ullrich’s wedding ballgowns provided a range of ravishing cool colors, topped with large, rose-like hats (La Diva is demanding one for her next recital.)  The gowns conveyed a certain decorative, submissive aspect to the women, and the wedding chorus in general was oddly passive. Lucia’s wedding gown – white satin with gold embroidery – was exquisite.

Nadine Sierra as Lucia, Brian Mulligan as Enrico.
The performance was preceded by an announcement that Sierra was suffering from some illness, with a request for understanding from the audience. I’m never quite sure if such announcements help. One could sense Sierra feeling her way through her opening Larghetto, “Regnava nel silenzio,” but once she successfully delivered the final top note, she was on her way, performing at perhaps 90 percent of her usual power.

Cavanagh also used ghosts quite effectively. Even Enrico’s plea that “my ghost will haunt you” produces a phantom double, enhancing the impression that Lucia is deeply connected to the world of spirits.

Oct. 8-28, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $26-$381, 415/864-3330, www.sfopera.com.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of seventeen novels, including Gabriella’s Voice and Operaville.