On Thursday night the DC opera fans gathered at the Washington National Opera for the opening night of David Alden’s production of Donizetti’s timeless tale of love and horror, Lucia di Lammermoor. It soon became obvious that the production presented to us was not the most conservative one. Immersed in pitch black darkness with but a thin ray of light across the wall, the stage was anything but easy to look at. Alden’s production transported us into the house of eternal twilight – the house of the Ashtons. Thanks to the collaboration of set designer Charles Edwards, costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel and lighting designer Adam Silverman, The House became the central character with a life of its own. The House suppressed, drove to insanity, communicated through a mischievous language of shadows, turned humans into silhouettes and faces into ghostly profiles. Anyone who attempted to cross its threshold had to fight it and either win and let the light in, or lose and sink into eternal darkness.

Sarah Coburn as Lucia and Michael Chioldi as Enrico © Scott Suchman
Sarah Coburn as Lucia and Michael Chioldi as Enrico
© Scott Suchman

As the opera progressed, it became clear that the House had gained full power and control over its miserable inhabitants: clumsy and emotionally fragile teeneage Lucia, sung by Sarah Coburn, and her neurotic and perverted brother Enrico, portrayed by the WNO’s favorite, Michael Chioldi. Even though Coburn’s Lucia boasted expansive vocal range and tonal beauty, dramatically (much in compliance with the idea of being suppressed by the House) her character came across as emotionally flat, even in the famous Mad Scene. Chiloldi’s Enrico presented a horrifying caricature of a mentally unstable and sexually confused boy, trapped in the body of a grown-up, equally eager to play both children’s and sexual games with his own sister. Even though Chioldi’s weak, cowardly and cruel Enrico came across as an ideal victim of the House, his character lacked vocal force and dramatic intensity that this part calls for.

The greatest triumph of the evening belonged to Lucia’s star-crossed lover, Edgardo, portrayed by the young Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu, who is marking his WNO debut with this role. The tenor portrayed his character with the vocal ease of a true virtuoso and the dramatic force of a keen actor, thus taking the part to a higher musical and emotional level. Pirgu literally kept the audience on the edge of their seats in his duet with Coburn Verranno a te sull’aure (a piece much underestimated by opera lovers these days). The artist boasted both vocal power and ability to blend beautifully with the voice of his partner, thus leading and supporting her at the same time. With the main theme from this duet returning throughout the opera, Pirgu managed to give it a unique coloring every single time he sang it. The tenor’s rendition of Edgardo’s final and most challenging aria Tu che a Dio spiegasti was breathtaking in its lyricism and impeccable technique. Each note soared and rang most purely against the well-paced backdrop of the orchestra led by Philippe Auguin. Pirgu’s steady falsetto rendition, filled with genuine despair, sounded a lot more heartbreaking than Coburn’s Mad Scene.

His Edgardo was strong enough to dare the House with his fearless heart and stand up to the eternal twilight, but not strong enough to win the final battle. When one plays with death, he has to remember: he might as well die. As Edgardo fell dead on the stage and the darkness swallowed the House, the director’s message to the audience became clear: no matter what a good player you may be, at the end it is the House that always wins.

Still stands the House immersed in eternal twilight, staring with its pitch black windows. Its portieres are dancing in the wind and its lamp is swinging like a pendulum that counts the hours before someone crosses the doomed threshold again.