Donizetti’s 1835 masterpiece Lucia di Lammermoor is the quintessential romantic opera of love thwarted, fraternal cruelty (necessitated by politics), madness, and death, set in Sir Walter Scott’s gloomy Scotland of the late 16th century. Opera Philadelphia’s new Lucia is framed perfectly by Philadelphia’s 1857 Academy of Music with its deep-red velvet seats, gilded fixtures, and colossal crystal chandelier; another ideal surrounding is the lovely opera house of the co-producer, the Wiener Staatsoper.

Brenda Rae (Lucia)
© Kelly & Massa

At intermission, an usher asked me: “Can the sets of an opera bother people in the audience so much that they enjoy the performance less?” I acknowledged immediately: “Absolutely!” Fortunately, the singers of all four main roles and one minor one were outstanding; more about them later (saving the best for last). Their presence, some astute Personenregie by director Laurent Pelly and the lighting by Duane Schuler almost balanced out what irritated and distracted me in Chantal Thomas’ set and Pelly’s direction.

Updating an opera, here to the mid-19th century, is problematic when crucial aspects of plot and text, clear to the audience, link it to another era. Some staging I can only call silly, exaggerated or redundant: Lucia making a snow angel and otherwise incessantly shaking her hands in the air (in case we didn’t know she was already mentally unstable). During much of the gorgeous Act 1 love duet, Lucia and Edgardo were at opposite sides of the stage (in case we didn’t know they were doomed to separation). Lucia’s maid, Alisa, had to stomp awkwardly through the snow early in Act 1 and frantically tug at her mistress later, unintentionally comical. The chorus plodded slowly across the stage while singing about jubilation on their way to welcome Arturo, Lucia’s ill-fated bridegroom. With so much space, why relegate Lucia periodically to downstage right or left, sometimes crouching on the floor? This also kept everyone on each side of the theater from seeing her on that side. 

Michael Spyres (Edgardo) and Brenda Rae (Lucia)
© Steven Pisano

The grey-black set was already visible during the brief prelude, since the curtain was already up, revealing a man downstage looking up at a bride standing on a snow bank: guess who? A huge grey bunker loomed stage right, and there was all that snow, hard for some to maneuver gracefully. At one point, what was supposed to be a distant building resembled more a nearby china cabinet. Black heavens, threatening clouds and a red sky fit the text and music, but just before Lucia’s Mad Scene, a blood-red projection appeared upstage, with dripping lower edges. And so on.

Not that I miss the men’s ghastly 16th-century wigs, nor do I demand that the bunker be a “real” Scottish castle-wall. I have loved avant-garde productions, too. But everything I cite was jarring and made me concentrate on it instead of letting us experience it as an integral partner to the score. A theater expert once said that producers and designers should avoid elements that make the viewer wonder what they are, why they are there, or what will happen to them later. Thus Pelly’s sensitive treatment of all the relationships was vital and welcome. 

Michael Spyres (Edgardo)
© Kelly & Massa

Considering the unending tragedy, it is fascinating how much of the score is in major keys, even Lucia’s “Soffriva nel pianto” describing her unhappiness to the unsympathetic Enrico. Yet the music conveys the emotions, and conductor Corrado Rovaris, with his fine orchestra, made sure it did, giving expert care to tempi and rhythms. Like Donizetti, Rovaris was born in Bergamo: channeling the composer? A highlight was the glass harmonica accompanying Lucia’s infamous Mad Scene as the composer originally intended; we usually hear a flute, but nothing beats this instrument’s eerie sounds!

Italian pronunciation was good, the men’s words nearly always clear. Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, as the chaplain Raimondo, was both sympathetic and austere, his voice alternately tender and powerful. Baritone Troy Cook’s warm, strong voice and personality were ideal for Enrico’s unavoidably nonstop anger. I thank Opera Philadelphia for enticing tenor Michael Spyres from Europe to Philly: he has an attractive, unforced voice with a wide range of expression and dynamics. The rich sound of mezzo Hannah Ludwig as Alisa in her brief but compelling exchanges with Lucia was a luxury. 

Brenda Rae (Lucia)
© Kelly & Massa

This is soprano Brenda Rae’s fourth Lucia, and her reputation for conquest of the role is justified, both in her multifaceted interpretation and in her singing, not only in the extraordinary flights of behavior and coloratura of the Mad Scene but in the plaintive scenes of passionate love and wretched sorrow. She sang part of the Mad Scene lying and writhing on her back, every note clear as a bell. If you’ve got it, flaunt it!