- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 21, 2002

The Washington Opera's new production of Gaetano Donizetti's classic "Lucia di Lammermoor" is the perfect vehicle for launching the company's new fall season.
Like the tattered and soon-to-be-remodeled Kennedy Center Opera House in which it is being performed, "Lucia" is a much-loved but somewhat frayed old warhorse that has, over the years, become predictable. Nevertheless, the Washington Opera's production has made this masterpiece fresh, new and appealing, breathing life and humanity into a work whose emotional extremes at times strain audience credulity.
Based on Sir Walter Scott's novel "The Bride of Lammermoor," Donizetti's "Lucia," first performed in 1835, is the melodramatic tale of a lone and very pre-feminist woman driven to madness by a dun-gray Scottish castle full of macho guys who would rather murder and pillage than make love.
Lucia's brother, Enrico, slaughters his rivals and steals their land but still finds himself penniless and politically on the outs. The yes men around him, including chaplain and tutor Raimondo, steadfastly hang onto this sinking ship, while his isolated rival, Edgardo, lives to avenge his father's death at Enrico's hands.
For Edgardo, at least, there is a potential for redemption as he secretly falls in love with Enrico's sister Lucia after rescuing her ironically from a raging bull. (Who says Scottish novelists and grand opera composers don't have an ironic sense of humor?)
This Romeo-and-Juliet match is not to be, however, as Enrico engineers his miserable sister's marriage to the hapless (and rich) Arturo to solidify a political alliance. Lucia flips out with the most spectacular mad scene in the history of opera, and there aren't a lot of principal characters left alive by the final curtain.
It's easy to poke fun at this kind of dramatic and musical excess. Hollywood, from Warner Bros.' cartoonists to the Three Stooges, has parodied it frequently. In this convincing Washington Opera production, though, director Marthe Keller has managed, very subtly, to restore both the dignity and the genuine pathos of the original.
From hotheads to hopeless romantics, each character's emotions arise from within and collectively add the kind of heart-wrenching beauty to the acting and the music that people only expect from later, more sophisticated masterpieces such as Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" or Verdi's "Otello." Without the aid of cheap, snide, postmodernist stage gimmickry, this very traditional production becomes a mature, character-driven adult musical drama. What a concept.
As always, however, an opera production rises and falls on the quality of the singing, and the Washington Opera is blessed here with a near-perfect cast. This is ensemble work at its best, with each voice carefully selected for its ability to complement and blend with the others. The singing is never out of balance and is rarely overcome by the orchestra deftly and surely conducted by Emmanuel Villaume. Singers are almost always placed where they can be heard to advantage. The overall blend of sound, including excellent work by the chorus, is virtually without fault.
"Lucia's" vocal centerpiece, of course, is its dreadfully abused heroine. In this role, soprano Elizabeth Futral is a hands-down knockout. Given far more strenuous musical material to work with than she was provided in her last Washington appearance, as the heroine in Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette," she makes the most of it. Hers is perhaps the most finely shaped, exquisitely nuanced performance by a Washington Opera soprano since this reviewer started covering the opera in 1994.
Her sculpting of the role begins subtly and quietly in the early going, when her Lucia is still light and innocent, not yet aware of the calamities that are yet to befall her. Then gradually, as catastrophe looms, girlishness gives way to unleashed passions that explode in the great mad scene of the final act.
Miss Futral's high notes here were arrow-sharp and unrestrained, and her vocal arabesques were articulated with rhythmic perfection. As an actress, she rendered this long scene which can become preposterous touching, heartbreaking and believable. The Opera House was dead silent during this remarkable moment. Even the auditorium's usually shameless male coughing chorus observed a brief tacet as a token of respect.
The entire audience hung breathlessly on every note especially during Miss Futral's delicate interplay with the solo flute erupting at the conclusion with sustained shouting and applause that would be going on still if maestro Villaume hadn't decisively brought the orchestra back in. Brava. When opera magic happens, it is magnificent.
"Lucia," of course, features other soloists as well, and not one of them failed to sustain the excellence of this production. As Raimondo, bass Stephen Morscheck added a clear vocal gravity and sanity to a chaotic situation, trying to bridge the emotional gaps among violent opposites, but with little avail.
Chief among his problems, of course, are the dueling nobles, Enrico and Edgardo. As Enrico, the nearly heartless villain, baritone Jorge Lagunes brings a surprising emotional flexibility as well as a fine instrument, nearly redeeming himself in the end as he sees what his amorality has wrought. As the flawed hero, Edgardo, tenor Alfredo Portillo superbly calibrated his vocal gifts to this ensemble, soaring with unexpected power during key emotional moments and holding his own in his battles with the well-prepared chorus.
Where he, and all the major soloists, shone most brightly was in the opera's signature second-act sextet, "Chi mi frena in tal momento?" ("What holds me back in such a moment?"). Here, Edgardo is joined by Enrico, Raimondo, Lucia and, in background, Lucia's lady-in-waiting, Alisa (mezzo-soprano Keri Alkema) and her unfortunately short-lived husband, Arturo (tenor Corey Even Rotz), in a wrenchingly emotional ensemble in which all the characters pour out their sorrows in one of opera's most brilliant set pieces. The surging, backfilling and blending of voices was sublime, another of this production's many emotional high points.
Glitches were remarkably few on opening night. As the opera began, there seemed to be about four different opinions as to the exact tempo of the music, but maestro Villaume soon settled things down. As for the singers, perhaps a total of five notes were less than perfect. In other words, this is a benchmark "Lucia," well-paced, superbly sung, brilliantly acted and simply a great way to start this divided opera season.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about this production is that there are still a good number of tickets left. So, pick up the phone and don't miss out on this rare opportunity to see and hear what a near-perfect evening of opera is really like.

WHO: The Washington Opera
Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor"
Kennedy Center Opera House
Sept. 23 and Oct. 5 at 7 p.m.; Sept. 26, Oct. 2, 4 at 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 29 at 2 p.m. (Lyubov Petrova sings Lucia Oct. 4.)
Information 202/295-2400 or 800/876-7372


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