Santa Fe Opera serves as a summer destination for the opera-obsessed, drawing crowds from thousands of miles away. That’s an honor but also a responsibility: it means they need to create shows worth traveling for. It doesn’t require a trip to Santa Fe to see a Lucia di Lammermoor that is merely competent. In fact, neither the direction nor most of the cast in Santa Fe Opera’s production surpass that description. But to hear and see Brenda Rae as Lucia is well worth the flight.

Brenda Rae (Lucia) © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017
Brenda Rae (Lucia)
© Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

Director Ron Daniel’s staging is sadly static. There is real drama in the more intimate scenes, where Lucia loves or struggles with one of the men who surround her. But as soon as there are more than two characters onstage, the blocking reverts to the old operatic formula. Singers walk to the front of the stage, deliver their piece, maybe pace a little, and then retreat to allow someone else to do the same. If there’s an instrumental section, everyone stands around and does nothing until the singing resumes. I also take issue with Daniel’s vision of the opera’s ending: the previously sympathetic Enrico arrives and brandishes his dagger, triumphantly facilitating Edgardo’s suicide.

The aesthetics of the production are beautiful. Riccardo Hernandez’s sets and Christopher Akerlind’s lighting come together in Lucia’s act one scene by the fountain. Here, it’s a glass-walled pool illuminated from below, which changes color from forest green and clear blue to blood red. Emily Rebholz’s mid-19th-century costumes are impeccably designed and fitted; every time the women’s chorus appeared onstage I had to suppress a bout of dress envy.

Brenda Rae (Lucia) © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017
Brenda Rae (Lucia)
© Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

Brenda Rae makes such a magnificent Lucia that the rest of the cast seemed very ordinary in comparison. She is the perfect coloratura soprano: crisp diction, strong trills and runs, clean onsets and crystal tone. She floated high notes and made them swell with flawless control. Her gestures could be histrionic (even before the mad scene, where histrionics are appropriate), but she created exciting drama out of her phrasing, especially during recitatives.

Her Edgardo, tenor Mario Chang, was outclassed. His voice matched hers well for the duets. (“Verranno a te sull’aure” was exquisite.) But when he sang alone, his choices lacked variety. The tone – heavy on squillo, slightly pushed – was pleasant, but everything came out with the same volume and texture. He only achieved dramatic variation in the final scene.

Mario Chang (Edgardo) and Brenda Rae (Lucia) © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017
Mario Chang (Edgardo) and Brenda Rae (Lucia)
© Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

Rarely is Raimondo the star among the men, but Christian Van Horn’s large, gravelly bass-baritone impressed from his first notes. As Enrico, baritone Zachary Nelson was inconsistent. He relished his top notes, which rang out commandingly, but sounded strained elsewhere. His characterization was unusually convincing: this Enrico genuinely cared about his sister but lacked the understanding or patience to spare her. His despair during her mad scene was touching.

Zachary Nelson (Enrico) and Christian Van Horn (Raimondo) © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017
Zachary Nelson (Enrico) and Christian Van Horn (Raimondo)
© Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

Santa Fe Opera Apprentices filled the small roles. Stephen Martin sang an underpowered Normanno, Sarah Coit was a clear-toned Alisa, and Carlos Santelli gave Arturo bright sound and a haughty demeanor. The men’s chorus was soft and mellifluous, well suited to the funereal ending but underwhelming for the angry manhunt of the opening scene. The chorus sounded much better when joined by the women, who were livelier of voice and face.

Corrado Rovaris led the orchestra in a brisk delivery of Donizetti’s score. (And I mean brisk. The running time was just over two-and-a-half hours, including intermission, without opening any of the usual cuts.) This driving energy kept the drama moving forward. Dynamically, the orchestra was timid. This made sense under the voices (which were not huge), but I would have appreciated more contrast during instrumental bits, when there was no risk of overwhelming singers. Special mention goes to Friedrich Heinrich Kern, whose glass harmonica playing gave “Il dolce suono” an atmosphere both celestial and eerie.

***11