The New Orleans Opera presents two performances each of four operas each season. As the third opera of its 2014-15 season it created a new production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”, directed by E. Loren Meeker with sets by Ryan McGettigan.
The cast, led by Texas lyric coloratura soprano Laura Claycomb in the title role and New Jersey lyric tenor William Burden as Edgardo, once again proved the great fortune that 21st century opera-goers have in hearing singers who are able to do justice to this most iconic of Donizetti’s highly dramatic and richly melodic operas.
[Below: Edgardo (William Burden, left) vows eternal love to his enemy’s sister, Lucia (Laura Claycomb, right); edited image, based on a Tom Grosscup photograph, cpourtesy of the New Orleans Opera.]
The staging of the new production was faithful to the opera’s story, shifting its time and costuming to an era more akin to one of Julian Fellowes’ epic British television series. As in the opera’s source material (Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor) the survival of large estates depend on well-placed marriages, with dynastic stratagems trumping love between men and women whose passions do not conform to familial duty.
Time-shifting an opera to make an analogy to an idea that might resonate with contemporary audiences can be a treacherous business, but not only did Meeker’s staging work well, it helped to focus the opera on its drama rather than on just its succession of famous arias that precede and follow the Sextet and the Mad Scene.
Laura Claycomb’s Lucia di Lammermoor
Yet, there was nothing to disappoint audience members who attend the opera only for its singing. The sine qua non of a performance of “Lucia” is a lyric soprano capable of performing the extraordinary coloratura demands of the opera’s Fountain and Mad Scenes, with their mix of legato passages juxtaposed with brilliant bursts of cadenzas, trills, and rapid runs.
In Laura Claycomb New Orleans Opera obtained one of the world’s greatest of contemporary Lucias, who, in addition to a secure vocal performance that displayed her comfort in a role closely associated with her, showed her command of the stage. One knew from the first notes of the aria Regnava nel silenzio that a world class Lucia was present.
[Below: Lucia (Laura Claycomb, right) is accompanied by Alisa (Lisa LaFleur, left) as she awaits an arranged rendezvous; edited image, based on a Tom Grosscup photograph, courtesy of the New Orleans Opera.]
Her Lucia did exhibit from her initial appearance in the Fountain Scene (where she explains to her companion, Alisa, her communication with the spirit world) signs of the psychological fragility that will engulf her. But she also presented as a girl – self-absorbed, willful, childish, a bit ditzy – who would have done just fine in later life, had events broken in her favor, and she been permitted to experience a happier life.
In recent months, Claycomb’s operatic appearances have been centered in Europe. An opportunity to see her again in an American opera house was most welcome.
William Burden’s Edgardo
Lyric tenor William Burden is an invaluable artist in such 20th and 21st century operatic roles as Peter Quint [Countdown to Britten Centennial: Conlon, Racette and Burden Impress in Enigmatic “Turn of the Screw” – March 12, 2011], the Shepherd [Mariusz Kwiecien in Reverential, Resplendent “King Roger” – Santa Fe Opera – August 3, 2012], Flamand [Review: Renée Fleming’s Reverential “Capriccio” at Lyric Opera – Chicago, October 28, 2014] and the Apostle Peter [Warm Reception for Adamo’s “Mary Magdalene” – San Francisco Opera, June 19, 2013] that some opera-goers may not associate him with the traditional lyric tenor’s repertory.
I know him also as a consummate artist in the 19th century Italian bel canto and French lyric tenor repertories [see American Orpheus: An Interview with William Burden]. Yet, even as an admirer of his performances of Gluck and Rossini, I found his Edgardo exceeding my high expectations – a large and beautiful Donizetti tenor voice, nuanced and expressive.
At the end of the Sextet, one hears Burden declaim not just the anger in the Edgardo’s words, but the despair in Edgardo’s soul as he confronts Lucia as to why she signed a marriage contract with another man.
His physical acting matched his ability to convey emotion through his singing. In Meeker’s staging, Burden begins his great Fountain scene Sulla tomba in a traditional upright posture, but as his passions take over, he ends the aria on the ground lying in a passionate embrace with Lucia.
The world appears now to have more Donizetti tenors of high quality than there are performances of Donizetti operas to accommodate them, but Burden deserves to be recognized as a Donizetti tenor of the first rank.
Michael Chioldi’s Enrico
I had admired Michael Chioldi’s work in another important role for the lyric baritone, the title role in Ambroise Thomas’ “Hamlet” [see Michael Chioldi, Micaela Oeste Enrich Washington National Opera’s Theatrically Absorbing “Hamlet” – May 22, 2010.]
Chioldi as Enrico displayed a large, dark voice with power. He inhabited this role, convincing us of the desperate straits of a man with the weight of an estate’s future on his shoulders, having to conspire against a sister he loves to shake her out of what he considers a disastrous relationship.
[Below: Enrico (Michael Chioldi, left) tries to comfort the distraught Lucia (Laura Claycomb, right); edited image, based on a Tom Grosscup photograph, courtesy of the New Orleans Opera.]
(In fact, Chioldi’s Enrico seemed so on the verge of gaining some audience sympathy, that Director Meeker had Enrico lash out and strike Lucia as if to put things back into the right emotional balance.)
[Below: Enrico (Michael Chioldi, right) is furious at the persistence of Lucia (Laura Claycomb, left) in her commitment to marriage with his enemy; edited image, based on a Tom Grosscup photograph, courtesy of the New Orleans Opera.]
Jordan Bisch’s Raimondo
Basso Jordan Bisch was an effective Raimondo, with a sonorous voice. In the performance traditions that continued into the mid-20th century half of this role disappeared as a “standard cut”. Not so in New Orleans, where every note that Donizetti wrote for Raimondo was sung (and sung well). The traditional cut of the past reduced Raimondo to almost an non-entity.
But the character of Raimondo with all his interpersonal relationships with the inhabitants of Lammermoor is something like Romeo and Juliet’s Friar Laurence. In a key plot point, he secretly assists Lucia in getting a communication to Edgardo in France. This explains Edgardo’s sudden appearance at the Lammermoor Castle that leads to the Sextet of astonished principals..
[Below: Raimondo (Jordan Bisch) tells the terrified guests of the murder that has just occurred; edited image, based on a Tom Grosscup photograph, courtesy of the New Orleans Opera.]
Notes on the New Production
The performance’s orchestra, the Louisiana Philharmonic Opera, was conducted with sensitivity and efficiency by the New Orleans Opera’s General and Artistic Director, Robert Lyall.
The new sets consist of a series of easily movable modules that can be rearranged to represent the forest of the first scene in which Edgardo is chased by Normanno (impressively sung by Casey Candebat) and Enrico’s retainers. The sets move again to become the outdoor fountain scene.
Next we move into the Lammermoor interiors for the next few scenes. The efficacy of the sets in advancing the drama becomes apparent. The scene between brother and sister, Raimondo’s counseling of Lucia to go ahead with the marriage (the minister mistakenly believing that his messenger has failed to contact Edgardo) and the contract scene for the marriage to Arturo Bucklaw all occurring without a break.
To convey the speed in which Enrico intends to close the deal with the wealthy Bucklaw, as Raimondo finishes persuading the distraught Lucia to go ahead with the marriage, the maidservants bring Lucia the wedding dress. Arturo Bucklaw (tenor Tyler Smith) and his party arrive as the orchestra strikes up the cheerful music that introduces the wedding contract scene.
THen Edgardo arrives to the surprise and consternation of the wedding party and the furious Arturo drags Lucia off to her wedding bed.
The single intermission occurs in the aftermath of the Sextet. The second part of the opera begins with the Mad Scene (illuminated in blood red by Lighting Director JAX Messenger) and then in another exterior for Edgardo’s grief-induced suicide.
[Below: Lucia (Laura Claycomb) has murdered her bridegroom; edited image, based on a Tom Grosscup photograph, courtesy of the New Orleans Opera.].
This production and cast deserves to be seen by the large centers for opera performance. Although Claycomb’s Lucia is appreciated throughout the world, too little of her coloratura artistry in such roles as Lucia (or Bellini’s “Sonnambula” and other legendary coloratura roles) similar has been seen in the United States in recent years.
William Burden’s Edgardo was a revelation, and suggests that this important artist, a first choice for so many contemporary works, be invited (and be encourage to accept) more roles in the bel canto repertory.
For additional information, see:Rising Stars: An Interview with Laura Claycomb, Part 1 and Rising Stars: An Interview with Laura Claycomb Part 2 and A Conversation with Lyric Coloratura Soprano Laura Claycomb, Part 3.