"It was a dark and stormy night …." Chuckling whenever I hear these lines, I can see Charles Schultz’s beloved Snoopy staring intensely at his typewriter, vigorously typing away what he would consider his magnum opus novel. Not surprisingly, in countless titanic masterworks of literature and music, the foreboding stormy night setting serves as a metaphor and eloquent dropback for a stormy situation within the drama of the story. Such is the case with Gaetano Donzietti’s epic magnum opus, Lucia di Lammermoor. Set in the mysterious and misty moors of post-Reformation Scotland, this tangled tale – loosely based upon a historical fiction novel by Sir Walter Scott of Ivanhoe fame – revolves around a Romeo and Juliet-like situation in which a young man and woman from feuding families fall in love with tragic results. This past Saturday at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Donzietti’s long-neglected operatic masterpiece now turned repertoire staple was given a fresh facelift which charmed yet never totally wowed me according to my initial expectations.

In this production of Donzietti’s famed and initially-neglected classic, diva turned directress Catherine Malfitano tastefully contemporized this production while maintaining subtle reminders of its historical setting. While the story takes place in the 16th century, this production shifted it 200 years later to the Victorian Era, thus more potently reinforcing the opera’s core message that arranged and forced marriages – often for prestige – rule as priority over a young lady’s sincere desires and best interests. Still, obvious reminders of post-Reformation Scotland lingered, most notably the highly effective, transparent reprint of a 16th-century map of Scotland which served as the production’s curtain between acts. Hence, past and present were tastefully blended with a not-so-confusing result. The sets were highly minimalistic, preferring to rely on lighting effects rather than extravagant backgrounds and props. While I found this ingenious, a more traditional and detailed set would have aesthetically and rhetorically suited this classic opera better. For example, the accursed fountain which from which petrified Lucia receives the ghostly apparition is totally absent from the set – a major glitch that left my mind somewhat bewildered.

Susanna Phillips © Dan Rest
Susanna Phillips
© Dan Rest

In a similar light, the vocally strong cast enchanted me yet often left me hungering for more character development and depth. Unfortunately, Phillips’ Lucia failed to epically capture the psychological depth of this tragic heroine and her demise. From the start, Phillips exemplified a childlike innocence. I found this touching and appropriate during the first half of the first act, but as the opera progressed into more tragic realms, Phillips failed to fully showcase a traumatized and tormented individual, exploited by her brother’s evil spirit and selfishness. The absence of Lucia’s torment became most obvious during the famed mad scene. Phillips’ Lucia, again maintaining her childlike innocence, appeared more in a state of peaceful ecstasy rather than the extreme madness which has consumed her both vocally and physically. Rather than writhing on the floor, violently lashing out at others, and flashing crazed eyes in the spirit of such great giants as Natalie Dessay, Phillips preferred to remain predominantly stationary, gazing heavenward and affectionately embracing every surrounding object. Similarly, Giuseppe Filianoti as Edgardo beautifully lent his lightly rich tenor voice to the role, but both his voice and body language did not fully demonstrate extreme infatuation and pain at his beloved’s “betrayal.” On the plus side, baritone Brian Mulligan as the evil Enrico proved a formidable and eventually repentant villain complete with his oily and plotting facial grimaces, while Christian van Horne lent a truly gentle and understanding Christian spirit to the role of Raimondo the family minister – who understands the theological meaning of marriage yet secretly sides with Lucia in her agony.

Despite the pitfalls, this Lyric production of Lucia is worthwhile fare for those outside veteran opera-goers. While those deeply familiar with the groundbreaking performances of such giants as Natalie Dessay and Maria Callas will undoubtedly experience major disappointment, audiences outside of this crowd are guaranteed musical and visual delight. Those interested in fine singing and its pedagogy will find delight and technical inspiration in Phillips’ Lucia, while the tamer, more “G-rated” presentation of her character will lend itself better to younger audiences and those new to the wonderful world of opera. In the same light, those interested in contemporary theater and lighting will find this Lyric production most stimulating and ground-breaking in terms of set ingenuity. Finally, with Halloween less than a week away, this eerily thrilling opera – ghosts, omens, murder, and psychological madness included – lends itself perfectly towards fine, non-graphic but satisfyingly chilling holiday fare. So, whether you are a newcomer to opera, a diehard Romeo and Juliet fan seeking a fresh variation on the tale, or a thriller movie fan seeking to trace the history of the modern thriller, head out to the Lyric to experience the thrills and chills of Donzietti’s hallowed masterpiece.