For some months, we have been aware that the Greensboro Opera Company was keeping its fingers crossed, hoping that the scheduled diva would be able to sing both performances of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. A native of Bertie County, N.C., Jennifer Welch-Babidge is a graduate of the NC School of the Arts. The New York press lauded her performance of the role in her September debut with the N.Y. City Opera, praising her "bright bell-like soprano." The Metropolitan Opera star was then six months pregnant and would be over eight months for the GOC's November 14 and 16 performances. Just in case, the company had hired soprano Hoo-Ryoung Hwang of the Washington Opera to act as cover.
There was no sudden appearance of a screaming "extra" at the opening night performance on November 14. Far from holding back, Welch-Babidge was thrown to the floor twice by a raging Edgardo in the Act II scene with the wedding document. Nor did she spare herself physically in the justly famous Mad Scene. We doubt that the GOC has ever had a stronger soprano soloist. Every high note was exactly in place and precisely pitched and there were a lot of them! Her voice was fully supported throughout its range and she was fully in character every moment she was on stage. Her runs and sustained notes were magnificent, and her partnerships - with harpist Helen Rifas in the fountain scene in Act I and in the concertante-like sections with flutist Debra Reuter-Pivetta in the Mad Scene - were perfect.
Welch-Babidge was surrounded by one of the strongest and most even casts in the GOC's history. Tenor Steven Lacosse was fine as Normanno, Ashton's lackey, who reports Lucia's love for Ashton's hated rival, Edgardo. Baritone Scott Hendricks brought a rich dark color to the role of Enrico (Sir Henry Ashton of Lammermoor). He was as fiery in temperament as his rival and processed a burnished mezza-voce that was used to good dramatic effect. Memorable were his long held notes as he slowly collapsed into a chair in Act II, despairing of Lucia's willingness to give in to rescue the family fortunes. As the Lammermoor chaplain, bass Kevin Langan's rich low range brought weight to the "Greek Chorus" in Act III, describing the bloody scene of the newlyweds' bedroom. Mezzo-soprano Dorothy Byrne was effective as Lucia's companion, Alisa. In this company and in the acoustics of the War Memorial Auditorium's large stage, tenor James Allbritten's voice seemed relatively smaller. Having reviewed his superb Des Grieux in Massenet's Manon for an extinct publication, we found his diction crisp and tone still fine. He did about all one could in the role of the tenor blind to his situation going to slaughter. Neal Harrelson acted superbly and brought one of the firmest and most even tenor voices that the GOC has ever had to his dramatic portrayal of Lucia's true lover, Edgardo.
The production benefited greatly from the imaginative direction of stage director Colin Graham, now in his 25th year as Artistic Director of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. The staging was traditional with no glaring anachronisms. The blocking of the chorus was effective; it didn't call attention to itself. The sets, basic architectural columns with drop cloths and stairs or "ruins," were designed by Roberto Oswald and provided by the New Orleans Opera Association. The lighting, by Kent Dorsey, was very effective, particularly the play of lightning within the Wolf's Crag Tower in the ruins of Ravenswood Castle at the beginning of Act II. Veteran chorus master Richard Cox worked his usual magic in welding his group into a versatile musical instrument. In the pit, Valéry Ryvkin once again proved to be a worthy successor to the GOC's founding conductor, Peter Paul Fuchs. Co-ordination between the stage and pit was tight, and Ryvkin made even some stretches of commonplace scoring sound musical. The 38 members of the Greensboro Symphony played superbly. Hornists Robert Campbell and Cameron Gordon Peck had many wonderfully subtle blended ensembles as well as solos. In addition to the cited harp and flute solos there were some sparkling ones from oboist Cara Fish and clarinetist Kelly Burke. The strings' rich sound belied their number. Beth Vanderborgh led the cellos in caressing Edgardo's last words.
It would be difficult to say who may have been more frustrated, the individual stuck with running the supertitles or the audience trying to read them. If the fountain in Act I was haunted by the ghost of a young woman, the supertitle machine was possessed by the spirit or vision of Mister McGoo! The translations used by Christopher Bergen Productions were quite good... when they could be read. Of course there wasn't enough room to give the full text of the great sextet. The problem was that almost every change of text had to wrenched into focus.
If we lived in Greensboro, we would be sorely tempted to rush back to catch the matinee performance on November 16. The GOC production was that good.