If you close your eyes and simply listen to the voices now on stage in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of “Lucia Di Lammermoor” — the Gaetano Donizetti classic that thrives on the fabled 18th century Italian-born vocal style of bel canto to spin a tale of feuding families in Scotland — you will find plenty in which to take pleasure.
There are moments when the sheer brilliance of the unamplified voice, stretched to the outer limits of human capacity, is stunning. And the voices here, whether those of the soloists or the superb chorus, are formidable, as is the playing of the Lyric orchestra, led by Enrique Mazzola, who is making his Lyric debut.
But if, like many audiences now, you also bring expectations of a more contemporary approach to operatic acting, this production, directed by Graham Vick (artistic director of Britain’s Birmingham Opera Company), feels like a return to 18th century style itself. The staging is wooden, and much of the acting all too often follows suit. In addition, aside from some beautifully stormy and painterly skyscapes, Paul Brown’s set, with its vast gray panels that slide into place to frame certain scenes, feels flat and distancing.
Of course, bel canto puts the emphasis on beauty of sound as opposed to naturalistic dramatic expression. But in a story like “Lucia” — something of a Scottish twist on Romeo and Juliet (with Salvadore Cammarano’s libretto based on Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 novel, “The Bride of Lammermoor”) — some sense of erotic chemistry between the lovers is necessary. And in moments of passion you want them to look in each other’s eyes rather than stand side by side as they look into the audience while hitting their notes.
‘LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR’ Somewhat recommended When: Through Nov. 6 Where: Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Tickets: $34 – $299 Info: (312)827-5600; www.lyricopera.org/Lucia Run time: 3 hours with one intermission
Although “Lucia” is most often described as a tale of love, betrayal, madness and suicide, it is, above all, about the victimization of women. The character of Lucia Ashton of Lammermoor (Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova) is used (as women are used in many of Shakespeare’s history plays) as the pawn in a marriage arranged solely to consolidate the power and wealth of men. She is helpless in countering the demands of her reprehensibly selfish brother, Lord Enrico Ashton (Hawaiian-born baritone Quinn Kelsey, full of bluster and a sense of entitlement), who is incensed to discover — by way of the coldheartedcastle guard, Normanno (tenor Matthew DiBattista, aptly smarmy) — the existence of her passionate love affair with Sir Edgardo of Ravenswood (the warm-voiced Polish tenor Piotr Beczala), head of a longtime rival family.
Although Lucia and Edgardo pledge an oath of devotion and exchange rings before he must leave for France, they do not marry. And though he’s true to his promise that he will write her letters from abroad, they are intercepted by Enrico, who will later offer “proof” of Edgardo’s infidelity with forged letters. So, all is in place for Lucia to be married to Lord Arturo Bucklaw (Jonathan Johnson), a smarmy aristocrat politically allied with her brother. Meanwhile, Lucia’s humane but acquiescent chaplain/tutor, Raimondo Bidebent (Adrian Sâmpetrean, the powerful Romanian bass and excellent actor whose sensational Lyric debut here should lead to further roles), just looks on, and even urges her to “do her duty” to her brother.
Edgardo’s sudden return at the very conclusion of the wedding (in many ways the strongest scene in the production) sends him into a rage against poor Lucia’s “betrayal,” and this subsequently drives her to madness, and to her wedding-night murder of her husband. Later, still unaware of the truth, Edgardo plans to confront Lucia again, but after seeing a passing funeral party he learns she has perished from grief, and in despair he kills himself, hoping for a heavenly reunion with his beloved.
Shagimuratova has a splendid honey-toned soprano that she uses for many and varied effects, whether conjuring an ominous female ghost in the company of her maid, Alisa (lovely Illinois-born mezzo soprano Lindsay Metzger), or her duets with her lover and her brother. Of course, it is Lucia’s long, climactic “mad scene” that is the test, and she moves through it with great power, with her duet with a flute astonishingly beautiful.
The opera’s second act sextet is every bit as compelling, opening with a duet between Edgardo and Enrico, in which Edgardo expresses his enduring love for Lucia, and Enrico expresses remorse (too little and too late) for his treachery. Lucia and Raimondo join in with their own laments, with the added voices of Arturo and Alisa, and the surging chorus (applause for chorus master Michael Black) driving towards Lucia’s soaring high note.
But superb singing is not enough these days. The action must flow, the characters must connect emotionally and move convincingly. And the storytelling must be more than a trip from one set piece to another. This “Lucia” takes a decidedly retro approach.