Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor has returned to Florida Grand Opera for the third time in a dozen years, opening the Miami company’s 77th season with a visually stripped-down but well-sung production of this 1835 bel canto favorite.
The production itself, which has no built set, comes from Houston Grand Opera and was designed by Britain’s Liz Ascroft to be sung in front of four huge panels painted with various versions of cloudy skies that drop down at various times behind the singers, occasionally at an angle. Sometimes the singers are wandering far upstage in the emptiness, or chorus members come on in stop-start processional style in order to stand and watch the rest of the action.
It’s interesting, conceptually valid and with its mostly somber costumes and lighting, visually striking. But it’s not very effective, and the result is that this version of Lucia is more like a concert version than a fully staged opera. Fortunately, there are fine voices in the first cast, who debuted on opening night Saturday at the Ziff Ballet Opera House.
The soprano Anna Christy is Lucia (like all the other principals, she is an American), and quite a good one. She has excellent technique for a role that demands it, and she uses it on a voice that is strong and pretty, and which had plenty of stamina for the high fifths above the tonic in the final cadences. It is not an exceptionally large voice, but it has character and distinctiveness, and she handles her fioritura stylishly and with precision.
She also is a good stage actress, in particular because she has virtually no physical props to work with. Her mad scene, in which at one point she ends up flat on her back on a table, was an object lesson in controlled meltdown: From her entrance in her bloodied dress, she came across as shell-shocked but trying to process what had happened. It was not extravagant, but it was compelling.
The tenor Joshua Guerrero, as Edgardo, won the most enthusiastic applause at the curtain Saturday. He has one of those classic lyric voices in which every line he sings sounds close to the edge emotionally, and he is a handsome man who makes an ideal romantic lead. His Act III aria, “Fra poco a me ricovero,” a favorite of tenors and audiences, was particularly affecting, as he built a good deal of persuasive despair into his singing. He already has a promising career, and his performance Saturday night showed why.
Baritone Trevor Scheunemann was a very fine Enrico, with a big, commanding voice that seized the audience’s attention at his first entrance. The same went for his formidable stage presence, and his believable villainy. His “Cruda, funesta” in Act I was suitably virile and fierce, and showed off the agility and youth of his instrument admirably.
Kristopher Irmiter, a familiar face to FGO audiences, was an excellent Raimondo, with a crisp, urgent bass that suited his character’s mission as peacemaker and persuader. His acting was perhaps the most vivid of the production; his pain at Lucia’s madness and his anguish and not being able to stop Edgardo’s suicide were clearly and powerfully communicated.
In the smaller roles, Chaz’men Williams-Ali as Arturo demonstrated a creamy, pleasant but somewhat unfocused tenor, and tenor Dominick Corbacio’s light instrument as Normanno was underpowered. Mezzo Mary Beth Nelson, on the other hand, was a strong Alisa, with a darkly colored voice that contrasted sharply with that of Christy’s.
The great Act II sextet, “Chi mi frena in tal momento?” was rich and beautiful, and nicely supported by the chorus, which had been well-drilled by Katherine Kozak. The chorus has a good deal to do in this opera, and its members sang well and carried out their staging — even a minute or two of stylized dance — with aplomb.
Conductor Alexander Polianichko, first seen in the pit at FGO earlier this year in last season’s Eugene Onegin, is an accomplished conductor who ran a tight ship Saturday night. Tempos were fairly sluggish in Act I but more vigorous in the second act, with both “Chi mi frena” and “Immenso jubilo” going a shade too fast. But Polianichko’s orchestra sounded terrific, and he was scrupulous about keeping the dynamic level in check to let the singers be heard.
Stage director Elise Sandell did what she could with this odd production, trying to make physically impactful actions in wide-open spaces, which is an uphill struggle. Normanno spent much of the opera sneaking around the stage as the troublemaker who set the events of the tragedy in motion, and the chorus ended up reacting to most things with very little actual reaction; when it’s announced that the bride whose marriage they are celebrating has just murdered her new husband, it seems to have little impact on them. They seem to be operating in a state of suspended animation, which gives it a Twilight Zone creepiness that is a little offputting.
The idea of clouds hanging over a cursed family is a good one on which to base a production, but here, as a metaphor gone literal in giant hangs on an otherwise empty stage, it seems too recondite and spare. It adds texture to the story to have it set in a physical place rather than an invisible psychological forest, and with a tale set in a specific historical era, that’s even more important.
The costumes, also designed by Ascroft, were striking but chronologically hard to parse. The principals seemed to be in late 18th-century court dress, while the chorus was in mid-19th, looking like nothing so much as a bunch of townspeople in an Ibsen play, with dark full dresses for the women and high collars and frock coats for the men.
And while opera companies routinely cut scores to fit the exigencies of their resources, it’s not something to always applaud. In this production, the first scene of Act III, which is a meeting, during a storm, at the Wolf’s Crag castle between Enrico and Edgardo, was cut completely. It’s not a very long scene (about 10 minutes), but losing it robs the opera of some narrative depth so that we can hurry up and get to the mad scene. It forces the audience to miss out on some fine music, including some exciting Donizettian storm music and a vigorous duet between the two men that ends up in a vow to duel.
If you’re more interested in the music and the singing than the setting, this is a fine Lucia because its cast is strong and exciting, its chorus is able, and its orchestra is crackerjack. You won’t get much out of its visual aspects, but it’s good to have this bel canto classic so energetically performed.
LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR can be seen with this cast Nov. 14 and 18 at the Ziff Ballet Opera House in Miami and on Nov. 30 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderale. The second cast, which features Haeran Hong as Lucia, Jesus León as Edgardo, Troy Cook as Enrico, Simon Dyer as Raimondo and Benjamin Werley as Arturo, performs Nov. 17 in Miami and Dec. 2 in Fort Lauderdale. For more information, call 800-741-1010 or visit fgo.org.