Bloody Brilliant

The first opera I ever attended was a performance of Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor; I fell in love with the genre that night. Lucia has everything: breathtaking bel canto, goosebump-inspiring duets, true love, madness, murder, betrayal, suicide, more suicide. I cried. It probably didn't hurt that I was mad for the Greek musician who brought me, but that's another story. Let's just say that Lucia di Lammermoor has stood the test of time much better than that relationship.

Houston Grand Opera's current production at the Wortham Theater Center is an exquisite retelling of Sir Walter Scott's romantic tragedy. Texas native Laura Claycomb sings Lucia, the doomed bride, brilliant from her first giddy notes to her last gasping breath; Vinson Cole makes his HGO debut as the love of her life, and afterlife, Edgardo; and former Houston Grand Opera Studio artist Chen-Ye Yuan is the evil Enrico, brother of Lucia and sworn enemy of Edgardo. When Enrico sings that blood will drown the flame of their unholy love, he isn't kidding. Blood pretty much drowns everything by the final act, and according to HGO press notes, they use four different substances to create the crimson tide.

The blood theme is carried out in costume designer Constance Hoffman's scarlet dresses and red veils and in set designer Christine Jones's red cellophane windows. These windows are the only spots of color in the otherwise dark minimalist sets. In Act III's first scene, when a silhouetted Lucia smears her hands across a window, leaving bloody palm prints, the sheer horror of the effect almost distracts from the dueling duet between Edgardo and Enrico.

Claycomb uses her angelic voice to good effect in the love arias, where her voice climbs along with her illicit passion. Her singing is matched only by her dramatic interpretation of a woman who is tricked by her own brother into renouncing her true love and marrying another. First-year Studio artist Nicholas Phan has a small role as the bridegroom chosen for Lucia by Enrico for political reasons. But the brother's plan backfires when Edgardo returns to the wedding celebration. The grief-stricken Lucia goes mad and dispatches her new husband, offstage, by sword. The famous mad scene is both grisly and unbearably beautiful. Lucia emerges from her wedding chamber smeared with blood and clutching the hem of her red-splattered wedding dress as though it were a bouquet of roses. Here, in a cadenza created by the HGO musical staff from several different versions of the mad aria, Claycomb's vocal talents really shine. In an unusual twist, she ends the scene by slashing her own throat with the sword.

Newcomer Cole sings the lead tenor role with passion and verve, his round tones a perfect match for soprano Claycomb. His duets -- both with Claycomb and Yuan -- blend seamlessly, and his solos are heart-wrenching. He sings his heart out upon hearing of Lucia's tragic fate, setting off to join her in heaven in a second dying scene that left nary a dry eye in the house.

The other beauty of Lucia is the choral work. The layering of voice upon voice in the wedding scene begins as a sextet and ends with the entire stage singing of pain and passion. Chorus master Robert Bado is to be commended on the group's preparation, as is maestro Patrick Summers, who conducts Donizetti's famous score gorgeously.

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Marene Gustin