Gaetano Donizetti's 1835 opera Lucia di Lammermoor has never recommended itself to critical taste. Even by late 19th-century standards, this Romeo and Juliet-ish melodrama seemed hopelessly dated. Today, one still wonders if the opening chorus of Scots singing "Let the veil be torn from this shameful mystery -- honor demands, nay, insists on it" in Italian to music that sounds like something from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta won't just be laughed off the stage.
Still, the opera keeps its hold on the standard repertory -- the only of Donizetti's many melodramas to do so. And if the audience's response to the current Houston Grand Opera production at the Wortham Theatre is any indication, there's life in it yet.
Among Lucia's virtues is the simplicity of the story itself, adapted from a Sir Walter Scott novel and set in 17th-century Scotland. Although Lucia and Edgardo (the scion of a despised clan) are very much in love, Lucia's hateful brother Enrico, for his own political advantage, forces her to marry Lord Arturo Bucklaw. Lucia murders Arturo on their wedding night, goes stark mad and dies. After learning of her death, Edgardo kills himself.
The opera has something else going for it: the character Lucia herself. From the moment she makes her entrance to those haunting strains of harp and flute in the pit, we know that we are in the presence of someone unforgettable -- slightly unhinged, to be sure, but at the same time profoundly good, like some biblical prophetess.
Indeed, every scene that features Lucia is virtually indestructible: her manic broodings, her confrontation with her brother, the wedding ceremony that climaxes in the famous sextet, and, above all, her great mad scene. Donizetti, who himself spent his final years in a mental institution, has no trouble relating to Lucia. When, smeared with the blood of her victim, she sings about going to heaven and praying for us all, we don't doubt for a second that she will.
Lucia, as a character, has another advantage. Everyone around her -- including her macho lover, her scheming brother, her pompous husband, her self-righteous tutor and her solicitous maid -- is as one-dimensional as can be; Lucia seems well-drawn by comparison. One can hardly fault her for going mad trapped in a world so very much like a bad Italian opera.
Ultimately, the success of Lucia resides, more than in most operatic standard repertory, in the hands of the singers. You can't just block out the singers and listen to the orchestra, as in, say, Wagner; what's happening in the pit can hardly matter. Nor does Salvatore Cammarano's text offer any subtle distractions. All attention is focused on the singers as they step up to the footlights, open their mouths and try their best to navigate their way amidst the treacherous runs, trills and high notes of Donizettian bel canto. Hopefully, in the process, they can make all that lovely lyricism and virtuosic brilliance mean something dramatically.
Titziana Fabbricini, the Italian soprano making her American stage debut in this production, succeeded in doing just that. Hers is a thin voice and the sound is not always pleasant, but it is in full control of the coloratura. Fabbricini is an intelligent singer -- very much in the tradition of Maria Callas, whom she sounds like and whose interpretation of the role she has undoubtedly studied closely -- and she knows what to do with all the notes. And, unlike the rest of the cast, who mugged their way through director Rennie Wright's stagey production, she can also act.
In the other principal roles, tenor Marcello Giordani as Edgardo sported good looks, a beautiful voice and, at times, a certain winning vulnerability -- as in his Act Four aria, although he often sounded strained and pinched in the upper register. As Enrico, baritone Motti Kaston had trouble staying on pitch.
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In the smaller roles, Joseph Wolverton's bright tenor gave Arturo a nice edge. Carol Colombara sang Raimondo, Jill Grove sang Alisa, and Raymond Very sang Normanno. Jon Morrell's costumes were attractive -- especially Edgardo's outfit of shades of green. Less appealing were the drab and rather primitive sets, which come courtesy of the Welsh Opera Company -- so at least they're authentically Scottish.
Conductor Vjekoslav Sutej zipped his way through the opera, which perhaps was a blessing in disguise (though Fabbricini rightly took her own, more expressive tempos from time to time). The orchestra sounded raucous and under-rehearsed.
Fabbricini's performance is the only compelling reason to see this production of Lucia, but it's reason enough.
Lucia di Lammermoor continues through Friday, February 4 at the Wortham Center, 500 Texas Avenue, 227-