There’s a time-tested, audience-approved recipe for opera. In some cases, it’s funny, in others, it’s heart-wrenching; Lucia di Lammermoor falls into the latter category. Melodrama with a healthy dose of romance, a dash of foreboding, and a heaping spoonful of tragedy are the perfect recipe for tragic opera. However, there’s a secret ingredient that, unless added, will cause even the most-well constructed show to fail: talent. And boy, does Lucia di Lammermoor have talent.
Part of the Minnesota Opera’s bel canto series, Lucia di Lammermoor is nothing like last fall’s comedic romp Cosi Fan Tutte, but falls a little more in line with the tragic Werther from earlier this year. Adapted for the stage in Italian by Gaetano Donizetti, the opera is based on Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor.
The opera tells the cataclysmic story of Lucia (Susanna Phillips), her lover, and her brother battling for supremacy in the Scottish Highlands. Lucia’s brother Enrico (James Westman) has been at war in the highlands, battling against his greatest enemy, Edgardo (Michael Spyres).
The first scene plays out like an operatic version of Adele’s “Rumor Has It,” with two dozen men draped in fur and leather, singing about Lucia fraternizing with an unnamed man in the snow. Before long, the men go to investigate, and sweet Lucia comes onstage with her friend (Victoria Vargas), waiting outside of Edgardo’s manor. Smitten to the core, Lucia’s thoughts are consumed by Edgardo; however, she takes a moment to reveal that a horrible atrocity took place at Edgardo’s manor years before, leading to a tragic end for two star-crossed lovers.
Without doubt, Enrico finds out Lucia and Edgardo’s secret, flying into a fit of rage. Finally forbidden by her brother to see her lover, Lucia snaps. There’s a sudden change in the woman after Enrico forces her to marry another man. Moments later, her true love Edgardo bursts through the door. True anguish and heartbreak take over her aching spirit, which has been pushed to the brink of utter destruction by the dire feud between Enrico and Edgardo.
Suddenly it became evident that this really was the show that made divas into legends, as per the Minnesota Opera’s ad campaign. Veteran performer Susanna Phillips became just that during Act Three, delivering one of the best performances I had seen at the Minnesota Opera in the past few years. Her performance as Lucia, bloodied, broken, and utterly mad, literally made this opera. I cannot stress enough how powerful her command of vocal range is. While Donizetti’s arrangements and score are the bones of this piece, Phillips adds the flesh and spirit to each note. Both Westman and Spyres turn in fabulous performances as well, and the rather large cast does a great job as well; but one can’t help but feel that there’s definitely something about Lucia that you can’t take your eyes off of. Especially when she’s brandishing a sword.
The scenic design by Christine Jones, while useful as in stark contrast to the lavish costumes and incredible performances onstage, seemed a bit lacking. Rocky crags with scarlet-lit doorways spun this way and that as the scenes changed, providing what was an essentially blank canvas for the performers to work their magic. And though I appreciate having the performers stand out against everything else onstage, I couldn’t help but think a scenic step towards the sumptuousness of Constance Hoffman’s costumes would tie the whole show together. I do want to note that the beginning of Act Three opens with a genius, Hitchcock-inspired set change. Lucia is backlit against a window with blood running down in rivulets from her fingers and smeared against the glass. For a moment, everything becomes a shock of red and black—the darkness of love, life, and lucidity lost.
In the end, director James Robinson and conductor Leonardo Vordoni prove that they have a truly formidable show on their hands. Any shortcomings are negated by the poignancy and fervor in Phillips’ performance; audiences are seeing a star in the making. And with a big cast that definitely keeps up with, highlights, and complements Phillips’s talents, there’s little to be said about this production besides its ability to stand the test of time and do great justice to a classic tale.
Photo credit Michael Daniel
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