Brenda Rae’s vocal artistry brightens Santa Fe Opera’s dark-hued “Lucia”

August 06, 2017
By Charles T. Downey
Brenda Rae stars in Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" at Santa Fe Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Brenda Rae stars in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” at Santa Fe Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

A compelling season at Santa Fe Opera is rounded out by a traditional albeit dour staging of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, seen Saturday evening. Not staged here since 2001, this bel canto classic features a stunning performance by soprano Brenda Rae in the title role.

Rae, who made waves here with her sparkling high notes in the same composer’s Don Pasquale in 2014, had both dramatic and musical heft as the disturbed Lucia. In her Act I cavatina, “Regnava nel silenzio,” Rae sang with a tender legato, caressing the phrases. She was capable of exploding with forceful volume, but the emphasis was on carefully controlled decrescendos and gossamer pianissimo tone. In the cabaletta that followed, Rae’s mastery of the complex figures and embellishments was extraordinary.

What set the performance apart from merely being technically accomplished was Rae’s use of her vocal arsenal to reveal character. When she came down a staircase for the mad scene in Act II, in a white robe streaked with blood, the horror of the scene contrasted with the sweetness of Rae’s tone quality to disturbing effect. In the astounding aria, “Il dolce suono,” Rae again favored soft dynamics, with more volatile outbursts matching her gestures of fits and starts.

Donizetti originally composed this mad scene with an obbligato part for glass harmonica but later arranged that part for flute, as it is mostly played today. (In David Alden’s psychologically penetrating staging of this piece for Washington National Opera in 2011, the obbligato part was performed on an actual glass harmonica, the mechanized version of this instrument, created by Benjamin Franklin, perfectly incarnating the “sweet sound” that the insane Lucia hears only in her mind after killing the husband she was forced to marry.)

At Santa Fe the effect was further enhanced by having Friedrich Heinrich Kern play an extended version of the part on the glass harp, a set of actual tuned water glasses. From his elevated position on the left side of the pit, he could interact with Rae on stage, and the more rustic tone produced by the glasses was even more otherworldly than the glass harmonica. Rae sang the extended cadenza with the glasses retrofitted to the part written for a flute. It went on for several minutes, but most in the audience did not move a muscle.

The rest of the cast was merely adequate by comparison. Guatemalan tenor Mario Chang made an acceptable Santa Fe Opera debut as Edgardo, the disgraced lord in love with Lucia against her brother’s wishes. His voice was leathery more than lyrical but the high notes had a bright clarity in the tomb scene. Baritone Zachary Nelson, who has become a Santa Fe favorite since his apprentice year in 2012, was an angry Enrico, his snarling voice menacing Lucia.

Christian Van Horn had more volume as the manipulative chaplain, Raimondo, but not always sufficient accuracy in terms of intonation. Apprentice singers filled out the rest of the cast, with mezzo-soprano Sarah Coit distinguishing herself as Alisa, especially in the gorgeous sextet.

Corrado Rovaris, music director of Opera Philadelphia, kept the balance between stage and pit at an optimal level, allowing Rae lots of room for her softest singing. Some of the tempo transitions were not always clear, in terms of ensemble unity, but on the whole he showed capable leadership. The horns, in particular, had a heroic evening as the hallmark sound of Scotland throughout the opera, and the harp introduction to Lucia’s Act I entrance was delicate and lovely.

Ron Daniels, who directed a puzzling Don Giovanni here last season, went far more traditional in this staging. The set backdrops were composed of ceiling coffers, set at a vertiginous angle (scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez), on which images of different colored panels, clouds, and even trees could be projected (designed by Peter Nigrini). The lighting of Christopher Akerlind added more somber touches, including a red wash of blood for the fountain scene, and the costumes by Emily Rebholz were restricted mostly to muted tones.

Daniels has modified the ending of the opera to accentuate the opera’s supernatural elements, as he described in his director’s note. Edgardo, rather than using his own dagger to kill himself, impales himself on the sword of Enrico. As he died, a vision of his beloved Lucia, underlit in glowing white light, rose up from a trapdoor in the floor. As he sang of his hope to be joined with her at last in heaven, Lucia reached out with her arms to welcome him.

Lucia di Lammermoor runs through August 24.

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