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Sorrowing in Tears

[whitespace] Opera San José goes mad for 'Lucia di Lammermoor'

By Philip Collins

LOVE CAN MAKE you nuts, but life without it is no picnic, either. In Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, the title character succumbs to the pressures of both extremes in so preposterous and revolting a manner that the opera's renown centers as much upon Lucia's "mad scene" as it does on the memorable tunes the composer showers upon us.

Opera San José's production of Donizetti's most popular tragedy provides aspects of this work's virtues--primarily some first-rate singing with glowing support from the orchestra--amid lamentable dramatic conditions of a petrified sort. In terms of staging and design, this revival of Lucia di Lammermoor is at best competent and decidedly routine--more like a song recital with sets than a dramatic event. One can only imagine how robust and supremely entertaining this work must have seemed at its historic 1835 premiere.

Donizetti and his librettist, Salvatore Cammarano, used Sir Walter Scott's novel The Bride of Lammermoor as their source. Scott loosely drew from Scottish history, and then Donizetti and Cammarano veered farther afield still, ultimately coming up with a story that was tailor-made for the dynamic needs of musical drama. In short: Lord Enrico of Lammermoor Castle is beset with debt and wants his sister, Lucia, to marry the prosperous Lord Arturo Bucklaw. Instead, Lucia's been trysting with Edgardo of Ravenswood, Enrico's hereditary enemy. When Edgardo gets called away to tend political affairs in France, Enrico and his conniving ally, Captain Normanno, not only intercept the lovers' correspondences and produce a forged letter revealing Edgardo's love for another but also set up wedding plans for Lucia and Arturo.

Edgardo, summoned home by a letter from the good chaplain Raimondo, attempts to break up Arturo and Lucia's wedding--until he's shown the signed contract. Edgardo accepts Lucia's signature over her cries of devotion to him and leaves. Lucia murders Arturo before the party ends and then serenades the guests in her blood-drenched nightgown, knife in hand. Lucia expires of madness, and Edgardo does himself in once he gets the news.

The story definitely has the makings of a thrilling (make that bloodcurdling) night of music theater. That Donizetti and Cammarano pumped the whole affair out in less than six weeks is belied by the high order of workmanship they both contributed. It is a tautly shaped work in which words and music breath as one. If only this production worked similarly.

The silver lining of Saturday's performance was largely traceable to three cast members (the lead roles alternate). Brian Leerhuber was marvelous as Enrico, the archvillain. From his opening phrase, "E n'ho ben d'onde" ("I have reason enough"), Leerhuber established a dynamic presence that blended the music's emotional tenor with its abundant physicality. His baritone voice resounded and was clear--sensitive to Donizetti's melodic caresses of the Italian language.

As Edgardo, Thomas Truhitte posed a formidable--if less interesting--match for Enrico. His delivery of Edgardo's soaring tenor melodies brandished his character's heroic temperament with gusto. The same could be said for Michael Sommese's all-too-brief stint as Lord Arturo, the wealthy groom-to-be.

During the first scene, one looked for signs of life (and a better hat, too) from bass-baritone Maris Vipulis as Raimondo. But as the plot thickened, Raimondo's character filled out. Vipulis compellingly enacted the chaplain's transformation from passivity to advocacy on the plighted couple's behalf.

Barbara Divis' performance as Lucia was admirable throughout and convincing on occasion. In the early scenes when Lucia's arias centered in midrange and the emotional stakes were relatively low, Divis delivered in full. Her duets with Beerhuber in the third scene, particularly "Soffriva nel pianto ..." ("Sorrowing in tears")--were the first act's high point--sublime music rendered gorgeously. The irony of Lucia and Enrico arguing heatedly in a duet of harmonious accord is simply delicious.

As Lucia becomes increasingly unglued, however, Divis became divided by the role's widening dramatic and technical ranges, the latter of which she accounted for quite impressively. Yet the "mad scene" came off short of certification. Like too many instances throughout the evening, the performance was undermined by weak acting. It was a musical achievement but not a dramatic one.

The company's emphasis upon the development of its artists' vocal techniques is meritorious. But opera is theater, and the revival of standard repertoire deserves well-rounded aesthetic investments that inspire not only musical but also dramatic development from these talented performers.

Lucia di Lammermoor plays Jan. 22-24, 27, 29, 31 at 8pm and Jan. 25 and Feb. 1 at 3pm at the Montgomery Theater, Market and San Carlos streets, San Jose. Tickets are $30-$48. (408/437-4450)

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From the January 22-28, 1998 issue of Metro.

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