The Setup: Gaetano Donizetti's operatic masterpiece (1835) is known as one of the most psychologically astute works in the rep.
The Execution: How strange then that Houston Grand Opera's production takes mad Lucia and browbeats her into gentleness. The chorus members, while singing how happy they are for Lucia's wedding, enter as if in a memorial parade, with deliberate pomp and dirge-like attitude. The set's turbulent gray sky panels descend with grave import, only to ascend a moment later to reveal more characters behind, usually choristers holding great quarterstaffs which they brandish for no apparent purpose. There's no frenzy to any of this.
The orchestra, under maestro Antonino Fogliani, never whips itself into any state other than dainty inconvenience. This is the most reserved Lucia in memory. The famous "Sextet" (one of opera's most glorious moments, when time stands still) comes -- and goes -- without much notice at all, except that all six singers are pinned in individual spotlights. Even the blood of her murdered husband, which drenches mad Lucia's bridal negligee, is artfully appliquéd in tasteful, symmetrical stains. The passion's drained, too, out of the opera's magical set piece, Lucia's "Mad Scene," a tour de force of unrivaled showstopping vocal roulades and intensity. Soprano Albina Shagimuratova hits all the notes, no question about it, but there's no character there. She can climb on the table all she wants or wrestle with the tablecloth and laugh inappropriately, but it doesn't mean she's crazy unless we hear it in her vocal characterization. We don't. Donizetti is better served by Dimitri Pittas as Lucia's lover, Oren Gradus as chaplain Raimondo, Scott Hendricks as Lucia's opportunistic, sadistic brother Enrico, and Rachel Willis-Sorensen as Lucia's lady-in-waiting. The director, Tony Award-winning John Doyle, has over-thought the opera, giving Donizetti's lilting drama this symbolic, slow, very slow, resonance which doesn't push the music so much as trip it up.
The Verdict: Going mad in opera used to be fun.
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(Through February 11. Houston Grand Opera at Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737.)