Publicado en Mundoclasico.com (ISSN 1886-0605) el 11/10/2007

Demented?

Por Enrique Sacau
New York, 27/09/2007. The Metropolitan Opera House. Gaetano Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor. Mary Zimmerman, production. Daniel Ostling, set designer. Mara Blumenfeld, costume designer. T. J. Gerckens, lighting designer. Daniel Pelzig, choreographer. Michael Myers (Normanno), Lord Enrico Ashton (Mariusz Kwiecien), John Relyea (Raimondo), Natalie Dessay (Lucia), Michaela Martens (Alisa), Marcello Giordani (Edgardo), Stephen Costello (Arturo). The Metropolitan Opera House Orchestra & Chorus. James Levine, conductor
In her famous piece on opera and madness, American musicologist Susan McClary mentions that ‘Ethan Morden’s book on the phenomenon of the diva bears the title Demented, because (he explains) “demented” is the highest accolade one can bestow on a prima donna’s performance -or at least it was so for a particular time among opera buffs at the Met. The excess that marks the utterances of Lucia or Salome as insane is thereby elevated to the status of an essential ingredient -a sine qua non- of interpretations by women opera stars, regardless of the specific role’.

Indeed, in the case of Lucia, dementia is a particularly important element, as the climax of the opera happens when the soprano suffers a crisis musically depicted by ridiculously complex vocal acrobatics. Perhaps Natalie Dessay’s terrific rendition of the main character was the only demented element of this awaited production of Lucia, which otherwise fell very short of madness.

However good her performance of the mad scene was, Dessay’s acting and singing reached its top in act one when she sang a both melting and impressive 'Regnava nel silenzio'. Together with her proven capacity to stun the audiences with a precise and spectacular display of vocal prowess, there was Dessay’s carefully crafted phrasing which lent the character of Lucia a personality that other singers often fail to convey. Dessay is indeed enjoying a vocal honeymoon at the moment! Inevitably, her male counterparts could not match Dessay’s wonders. They were adequate, though. Marcello Giordani is certainly not a subtle singer. In fact, in his duet with Dessay in act one, his piani were raspy, but his phrasing was intense and whenever he sang in forte his voice sounded rather overwhelming and shone like no other. Mariusz Kwiecien’s Enrico, John Relyea’s Raimondo and Stephen Costello’s Arturo sounded very convincing. Costello’s Met debut was duly rewarded with a very good ovation at the end.

If we leave the singing aside, however, this performance of Lucia was rather disappointing. James Levine could do loud, but could not do thrilling. The lack of élan from the pit came together with very slow tempi. He seemed to have confused slowness with depth and it did not quite work. Dramatically slow tempi might work with Puccini -although not always, as Levine himself proved in his static Trittico last year- but when accompanying belcanto singing things are quite different.

The production did not help much. The conventional and adequate sets and costumes designed by Daniel Ostling and Mara Blumenfeld, respectively, could not make up for the poor direction of singers. This was a mixture of doing too little or too much. Too much was often done when the soloists should have been left alone. During the duet of Lucia and her brother in act two, for example, a number of people entered the stage to prepare it for the wedding, causing unnecessary noise and distracting the audience. The same happened during a crowded mad scene in act three or in the unnecessary (and rather tacky) apparitions of ghosts in acts one and three. The amateurish idea of having thunderbolts inside Edgardo’s palace in act three would have been anecdotal if it did not come on top of a sequence of scenes that were difficult to understand and believe. Such was the wedding in act two, a rather messy number in which a photographer was brought in to do things when the music should have been left to speak by itself. Too little happened there that could offer any clues to help us understand the emotional rapports between the characters, but enough to distract the audience.

Both from clinical and musical points of view, therefore, dementia was the absent element in this long-awaited production of Lucia. The audience seemed to be pleased, however, and I am sure they cannot wait to see Dessay very soon doing La Fille du Regiment. If the French soprano and her partners do as well as they did in London last January, they will raise the roof.