Listening to recordings of Lucia di Lammermoor is one of the great joys to be experienced by beginning collectors of opera CDs, for Gaetano Donizetti’s score is musically rich and famously spectacular. Staging the work effectively is a more challenging proposition, obliging a company to traverse a minefield of difficulties, not limited to finding charismatic singers to play Lucia and her forbidden love, Edgardo. Somehow, the Italian music and dialogue must affix themselves to the Scottish clansmen of Sir Walter Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor without appearing to be laughable incongruities. Then after Lucia’s celebrated mad scene, Edgardo’s anguish, regret, and suicide must not seem anticlimactic. Opera Carolina’s current production, conducted by James Meena and directed by Bernard Uzan, is reasonably successful on all counts. Unfortunately, the opera wasn’t composed by Puccini or Verdi, so the upper balcony at Belk Theater – along with the back rows of the orchestra and grand tier – were largely empty on opening night at a performance that sparked plenty of enthusiasm.
Scenic design on loan from the New Orleans Opera Association, gloomy and color-averse until we reach the interior of Lammermoor Castle, certainly isn’t a prime source of the production’s appeal. Nor is there a saving trace of tartan in the clothing of the Scotsmen or the womenfolk in the AT Jones & Sons costume designs. The firepower comes from the singers onstage and the musicians in the pit, who breathed a brooding passion into the prelude from the moment of the first cymbal clash. Names are Anglicized in the program and in the overhead supertitles, so it’s Lord Henry Ashton we see fuming in the opening scene when he hears from his captain of the guard Norman that his sister Lucy’s disinclination to marry Lord Arthur Bucklaw, in hopes of bolstering their family’s fortunes, is not based on her grief over the recent death of their mother. You can practically hear baritone Yun Hyung’s teeth gnashing as he gets the news from tenor Noah Rice as Norman that Lucy is receptive to the courtship of Sir Edgar, last of the despised Ravenwoods. As impressive as Hyung’s intensity is throughout the evening, tormenting Lucy and vilifying Edgar, it’s bass baritone Kristopher Irmiter who is more memorable as Chaplain Raymond, Lucy’s sympathetic tutor. After realizing that Edgar is the prime obstacle standing in the way of Lucy’s agreeing to marry the wealthy Lord Arthur, Raymond falls prey to another error, believing the false rumors spread by Henry and Norman that Edgar has been unfaithful.
The curious blend of steeliness and tenderness in Irmiter’s voice served him well afterwards in Chaplain Raymond’s key dramatic moments, when he persuaded Lucy to sign the wedding contract for her mother’s sake and, after intermission, when he announced the fatal consequences of that agreement to the shocked wedding guests. But without a near-perfect Lucy, the effect of Raymond’s announcement on the merriment would be quickly squandered. For the full eeriness of the mad scene can only be achieved if the tenderness of Lucy, in the first blissful section of her mad scene vocal, contrasts wildly with the blood spattered all over her bridal nightgown, the murderous dagger still in her hand, and the shock of Raymond’s lurid description of what she has just done. Looking far more Scottish than Sumi Jo when she sang the role here in 2004, a year before I saw Youngok Shin as Lucia at the Metropolitan Opera, soprano Kathryn Lewek sang the scene with the same deceptive ease in her Charlotte debut. She wasn’t quite as precise in the more heated up-tempo second half of her scene, but her trills were richer and that same satisfying effortlessness remained.
Hearing Lewek earlier in the evening, before and during Lucy’s tryst with Edgar in the moonlit Lammermoor garden, I was tempted to conclude that she trills naturally rather than merely easily. There is a brief exchange with Alice, Lucy’s companion, and mezzo-soprano Megan Miller really didn’t compare to Lewek before Lucy took over with her dramatic “Regnavo nel silenzio” aria. Uzan’s directing had been rather static in the opening scene, spreading the three men into their own thirds of the stage, but here he brought in an actress to silently give shape to the murdered ghost whose body had been flung into the fountain. It’s a worthwhile concept that Uzan uses to haunt a couple of the subsequent scenes, though I found the ghost’s exits somewhat inelegant.
The shimmer of Lewek’s singing and her affrighted reaction to the ghost murdered by Edgar’s ancestor seemed to carry an intimidating force when tenor Zach Borichevsky arrived as Edgar. Initially, he paled in comparison nearly as much Miller, but there were definite signs of that ring we love to hear in an ardent tenor’s voice when we reached the Lucy-Edgar duet that seals their betrothal. Even more power was manifest in Borichevsky’s Charlotte debut when he made his grand entrance in the ensuing scene, immediately after Lucy has yielded to all the entreaties and signed the marriage contract linking the Ashtons with Lord Arthur. Borichevsky generated enough electricity to totally eclipse all the men except Irmiter in the tense encounter between Henry, Norman, the hoodwinked Raymond, and the betrayed Edgar. The tenor’s rage was so towering when he took back the ring he had given Lucy that Lewek’s collapse didn’t read like overdone melodrama. Sparks generated by the lovers as the curtain came down for intermission boded well not only for the mad scene that followed but for the success of Edgar’s desolation afterwards.
Scenery for the castle hall where the action climaxes is no more than adequately stately and ornate. The staircase is not perfectly angled for Lucy’s frightful entrance from her bridal bedroom – as it would be if the guests and the audience could be credibly shocked simultaneously by the spectacle. Uzan and Lewek work well together here, with lighting designer Michael Baumgarten coming ably to their rescue, so that the initial reveal isn’t downright clumsy, and the soprano’s subsequent descent dispels all hints of awkwardness. The staging of the closing scene is noticeably bumpier, as Uzan momentarily lowers the curtain so that Lucy’s body can be spirited onstage near the spot where Edgar is mourning her loss and singing her praises. Borichevsky and the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra poured out their hearts with more than enough spirit to smooth over that stagey artifice. Meena was not only inspired working with the musicians, he was classy in the curtain call, bringing up principal flutist Amy Orsinger Whitehead from the pit to take the closing bows with him. Duetting with Lewek extensively in the climactic mad scene, Whitehead’s work was indeed special enough to merit this unique honor and the audience’s accolades.