Bland heroine makes for a lackluster “Lucia” at Lyric Opera

October 12, 2011

Susanna Phillips stars in the Lyric Opera's "Lucia di Lammermoor," which opened Monday night at the Civic Opera House. Photo: Dan Rest

No American opera company has done more to promote its young artists, past and present, than the Lyric Opera of Chicago. In addition to the usual comprimario opportunities, singers of the Ryan Opera Center are often given the chance to tackle significant larger roles. With gifted artists, such investments can pay off handsomely as with Emily Fons’ inspired performance as Nicklausse in the company’s current Tales of Hoffmann.

The Lyric has also relied on Ryan Center alums — partly due to laudable support of its talented former members and partly for more practical reasons, namely being able to hire them for considerably lower fees than established international stars.

Yet the dangers of an over-reliance on the bottom line while prematurely pushing young singers into major roles was made manifest with the Lyric Opera’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor, which opened Monday night.

As popular as Donizetti’s celebrated opera is, Lucia remains a difficult work to pull off. It requires a soprano able to encompass the title role’s bel canto elegance and stratospheric coloratura as well as bringing credible dramatic heft and an epic tragic dimension to the doomed title heroine.

Susanna Phillips undeniably has a beautiful instrument, lustrous and gleaming, and her singing was largely faultless technically. She doesn’t possess the agility and brilliance on top that the role really requires, yet the soprano negotiated the coloratura heights cleanly if rather cautiously Monday night.

But as imposing as Phillips’ voice is, in previous appearances, I’ve found the Alabama native to be a decidedly bland presence on stage, singing well yet with little dramatic involvement or characterization, and a curious casting choice for this most demanding of soprano roles.

The Ryan Center alumna was somewhat more engaged as Lucia, yet her cool, over-directed performance never remotely conveyed the searing devastation of the innocent Scottish girl driven to madness by her evil brother’s manipulations. Her mad scene was impressively sung — and dexterously handled while on some very high winding stairs — yet the intense emotions seemed to exist in a parallel universe, present in little bits of exterior stage business but not emerging naturally, as they should, through her singing.

Susanna Phillips and Giuseppe Filianoti in the Lyric Opera's "Lucia di Lammermoor." Photo: Dan Rest

That’s unfortunate for in Giuseppe Filianoti’s Edgardo, we had the real thing. Returning after his acclaimed company debut in Donizetti’s comedy L’elisir d’amore, the Italian tenor proved just as adept and convincing in this dramatic assignment as Lucia’s luckless lover.

Filianoti once again showed himself a consummate bel canto stylist, with burnished tone and dramatic point. The vocal high point of the evening came in the final scene with Filianoti’s ardent Fra poco a me ricovero and despairing Tu che a Dio, the tenor’s expessive phrasing and impassioned engagement underlining the qualities lacking in his costar.

Brian Mulligan was a solidly sung presence as Enrico, Lucia’s perfidious brother, who pushes her into a forced marriage to save his fortune, which leads her to insanity. Mulligan’s timbre and style are not very Italianate — and the young baritone’s striking resemblance to Nathan Lane made it hard to initially take his villainy seriously — but he sang with strength and sensitivity where needed. The Wolf’s Crag scene is included in this production and Mulligan’s powerful duet with Filianoti provided a highlight of the evening.

As the conflicted minister Raimondo, Christian Van Horn provided his usual vocal excellence and understated dramatic integrity, the bass-baritone well earning his often-cut Act 2 aria. Rene Barbera brought a vibrant tenor to Arturo, Lucia’s ill-fated husband, and Paul Scholten made a vivid cameo out of the small role of Normanno

Catherine Malfitano, a stalwart of the Lyric Opera roster for many years, is here making her company directorial debut. For the most part, Malfitano’s direction was fluent and efficient with some dubious conceits. Lucia’s girlishness in Act 1 with Phillips twirling about in circles was a bit corny and having the deranged Lucia passionately kiss her discomfited brother during the Mad Scene elicited some laughter on opening night.

Wilson Chin’s functional traditional sets worked well, enhanced mightily by Duane Schuler’s evocative and imaginative lighting. The Lyric Opera Chorus sang in robust and polished fashion, directed by Michael Black.

Making his company debut, Massimo Zanetti led the Lyric Opera Orchestra with vital and incisive direction. The Italian conductor displayed a clear feel for bel canto ebb and flow with an elegantly pointed Sextet. Zanetti also brought crackling dramatic urgency to the score, too much so at times in Act 1 where his singers were fitfully buried in fortissimos.

Lucia di Lammermoor runs through Nov. 5.; 312-332-2244.

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