Triumphant vocalism lights up Lyric Opera’s dark-hued “Lucia”

October 19, 2016
Albina Shagimuratova stars in the title role of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" at Lyric Opera. Photo: Andrew Cioffi

Albina Shagimuratova stars in the title role of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” at Lyric Opera. Photo: Andrew Cioffi

Most attention of local opera mavens has, understandably, been focused on the production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, which opened Lyric Opera’s season two weeks ago and launched the company’s new Ring cycle.

But Lyric is also spotlighting its venerable Italian tradition this season by presenting the two most popular bel canto tragedies in the repertory.

Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor was up first and proved a complete triumph Saturday night at the Civic Opera House. The visually arresting, new (to Chicago) production made an effective frame for some extraordinary bel canto vocalism from the three principals.

While the tartan makes an appearance in both the curtain and traditional costuming, this Graham Vick-Paul Brown staging favors a stark, striking minimalism and dispenses with most of the opera’s Scottish elements–no fountains, tombs nor castle wedding reception. Much of the action takes place on a claustrophobic narrow space at the front of the raised stage. Square windows and slots appear in different alignments on the back wall, reflecting the heroine’s psychic dislocation. The wall opens up for the outdoor and ensemble scenes to reveal a bleak blasted heath with enormous full moon and a single bare tree, the branches reaching out like menacing fingers.

With its gray-green colors, stark sets and long noirish shadows, this Lucia at times feels closer to a Val Lewton film than Sir Walter Scott’s 19th century Scottish tragedy. Still, if a decidedly dark production, the staging provides apt and atmospheric visuals for a tale of family betrayal, insanity, murder and suicide.

After her impressive company debut as Gilda in Lyric’s Rigoletto three years ago, it was a pleasure to have Albina Shagimuratova back as Lucia, especially since the doomed title heroine has become her signature role.

The Russian soprano’s silvery, high instrument is ideal for this repertory, and Shagimuratova sang with easy agility and faultless intonation, even in Donizetti’s most stratospheric passages. She sidestepped the score’s more challenging options early in the evening, yet brought consistent purity of tone and sensitivity to “Regnava nel silenzio,” and was light and nimble in the ensuing cabaletta.

Shagimuratova’s acting was rather generalized at times, though her vocalism grew duly impassioned in the love duet (“Verranno a te”) with Edgardo. She rose to the challenge of the Mad Scene in supreme style, spinning off the high-flying roulades and coloratura runs with striking accuracy and security, while touchingly conveying Lucia’s shattered psyche and confused thoughts and memories. Principal flutist Marie Tachouet shadowed the soprano’s every twist and turn with comparable artistry.

Piotr Beczała. Photo: Andrew Cioffi

Piotr Beczała. Photo: Andrew Cioffi

Matching his costar every step of the way was Piotr Beczała as Edgardo. Beczała made a commanding debut in his only previous Lyric appearance in Faust seven years ago. But the vocal artistry and searing intensity he brought to Lucia’s secret lover were on another level altogether.

The Polish tenor sang with a strong yet supple tenor and was consistently credible dramatically, even in the most ludicrous scenarios. Beczała blended gratefully with Shagimuratova in their Act I duet and went mano a mano with Quinn Kelsey’s dangerous Enrico in their confrontations. There was no sense of anticlimax in the final scene as Beczała delivered a virtual seminar in bel canto style in “Fra poco a me ricovero” and “Tu che a Dio”–elegant of tone, heroic in manner and conveying Edgardo’s doomed love for Lucia and emotional desperation with simply gorgeous singing. Wow.

In recent seasons, Quinn Kelsey has become Lyric’s go-to-baritone for Italian repertoire bad guys. One would think Kelsey less suited to bel canto roles than Verdi, but the former Ryan Opera Center member was able to get his big, burly voice around the corners of Donizetti’s score with surprising flexibility. Dramatically, he was a brutish and despicable villain, as Lucia’s brother who forces her into a loveless marriage for his own political gain, which leads to her psychological downfall and destruction.

The score was done largely complete, including the Wolf’s Crag scene. That moment proved effective due to Kelsey and Beczala’s vocal and theatrical engagement, even if it makes no dramatic sense. (Enrico and Edgardo hurl violent threats, only to stop and make an appointment to kill each other later.)

As the pliable and ambivalent chaplain Raimondo, bass Adrian Sampetrean showed a graceful bel canto style in his house debut though he lacked the sonorous heft to anchor the sextet at the low end.

Jonathan Johnson sang well as Arturo but his foppish portrayal made Lucia’s feckless husband more of a cipher than usual, even eliciting laughter when challenging the macho Beczała to a duel. Though it may have been a directorial conceit, the cliched character should do more than standing around with his arms weakly outstretched; one half-expected him to produce a snuffbox.

Lindsay Metzger was a worthy, very tall Alisa, Matthew DiBattista a serviceable Normanno.

Taking over Graham Vick’s direction, Marina Bianchi moved the action and characters capably, avoiding stasis and unwonted comedy. The only outright clinker was the decidedly lame swordplay, which should either be improved or dropped altogether.

In their first appearance of the season the Lyric Opera Chorus provided robust and vividly characterized ensemble singing under Michael Black’s direction.

Enrique Mazzola made a sensational Lyric debut. The Italian conductor demonstrated why bel canto is his speciality, bringing refinement to the music and closely supporting the singers. Yet he also delivered daunting fire and intensity, consistently underlining the sinew and explosiveness beneath the surface rum-ti-tum of Donizetti’s music. The celebrated sextet was magnificent, not only beautifully sung by the cast, but deftly balanced by Mazzola, who ensured that the ensemble moment registered with dramatic conviction.

Lucia di Lammermoor runs through November 6.; 312-827-5600.

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