Lucia di Lammermoor

The Metropolitan Opera on Friday, October 5.

Usually I’m not particularly moved, one way or the other, by acting in opera. In good operas, the music provides all the “acting” necessary, and everything extraneous to that is mere filigree on an already impressive monument. But Natalie Dessay made me lose my indifference. Starring in the Met’s new production of Lucia di Lammermoor (a very good opera), she delivers not only a dazzling vocal performance but also a dramatic performance to match.

If any role lends itself to heartfelt theatrics, it’s that of Lucia. The opera’s plot is fabulously melodramatic, and Lucia herself moves through the three stages of melodramatic love: euphoria, despair, and homicidal mania. I’m being flip because I find the story rather gaudy, even campy, but Dessay, partnered with Mary Zimmerman’s brilliant production, moved me in spite of myself.

Lucia’s famous mad aria of act three was stunning, the sight of petite, blood-drenched Lucia stumbling down the stairs unforgettable. But neither the melodic mania nor the horrific image would have been nearly so haunting had Dessay not delivered such a charming performance during the heroine’s happier days.

My favorite few minutes of the entire production might have been the winsome first act aria “Quando rapito in estasi.” Dessay sang the gorgeous bel canto line with seemingly effortless grace, holding her small body with the giddy, expectant joy of a teenager and carrying the melody with blithe innocence. Later, in act two, when Lucia’s brother Enrico (Mariusz Kwiecien) bullied her into marrying his ally, she crumbled, and her voice took on a note of pain yet never lost it resonant beauty. Kwiecien, like Dessay, is a masterful musician, and their duet of adamance and panic was genuinely disturbing. So by the time Dessay finally made her bloody appearance, I was primed to experience not just the virtuosity of the aria but also the dreadful poignance of the story’s climax. And I did.

That wasn’t just Dessay’s doing. As mentioned earlier, Zimmerman’s production has moments of true brilliance. Most impressive was her staging of the second act sextet, in which Lucia’s lover, Edgardo, interrupts her marriage to Arturo, and all the players begin singing of their despondency and bewilderment and rage and regret at once. As they sang, this production’s stalwart wedding photographer posed the company for the wedding portrait, producing a superficially celebratory tableau that served as a deliciously ironic contrast to the agony of the music and the first twitches of Lucia’s unraveling mind.

In the mad scene, the production restored Donizetti’s original orchestration: glass harmonica instead of the familiar solo flute. The harmonica created an appropriately eerie sound, which I enjoyed, but I admit I still missed the interplay between soprano and flute. Here Dessay sang both lines during much of her cadenza, a choice meant to reflect Lucia’s madness, but I think casting the lines as a duet actually evokes her lunacy better. With all other instruments tacet and the rest of the cast silent, it is as though the flute is audible only to Lucia, whose frenzied answers frighten those around her.

But this is a petty complaint about a glorious production. I might have bought tickets mainly for the mad aria (isn’t that why most people see Lucia?), but that was hardly the only scene to captivate me. And Natalie Dessay is certainly a soprano from whom I want to hear much more. I don’t have tickets to La Fille du Régiment, featuring Dessay this spring, but after falling in love with her Lucia, I might have to remedy that.

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