Opera Warhorses

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Review: Soprano Nadine Sierra’s, Director Michael Cavanagh’s Vivid “Lucia di Lammermoor” – San Francisco Opera, October 8, 2015

October 10th, 2015

The San Francisco Opera mounted an illuminating new production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”, staged by Canadian director Michael Cavanagh, with notably effective sets and projections by Washington scenic designer Erhard Rom.

Nadine Sierra’s Lucia

The production proved to be a triumph for Florida soprano Nadine Sierra, who had replaced an established star on short notice, leading a cast of principals consisting of Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as Edgardo, New York baritone Brian Mulligan as Enrico, French basso Nicolas Testé as Raimondo, Oregon tenor A. J. Glueckert as Normanno, Chinese tenor Chong Wang as Arturo and Latvian mezzo-soprano Zanda Švede as Alisa.

[Below: Lucia (Nadine Sierra, center) comforts Edgardo (Piotr Beczala, reclining); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


For 180 years, the role of Lucia has been a vehicle to display the technical virtuosity of celebrity coloratura sopranos, with the famous third act “mad scene” considered the epitome of the lyric coloratura’s craft.

A result of the dual emphasis on celebrity and recognized virtuosity is that it is a comparatively rare event for an international rank opera company to perform the opera with a young artist like Sierra.

But Lucia lightning has struck twice this year for the 27-year old Sierra, a highly acclaimed role debut having taken place in April at the Zurich Opera, then, as now, replacing another important artist for an entire performance run.

[For my notes on one of her other assignments between Sierra’s Lucias in Switzerland and San Francisco, see: Review: San Francisco Opera’s Youthful Cast Excels in “Marriage of Figaro” – June 14, 2015.]

[Below: Enrico (Brian Mulligan, right) attempts to persuade his sister Lucia (Nadine Sierra, left) that she has been abandoned by her lover; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Sierra is a youthful artist with the  vocal and dramatic skills to portray convincingly both the passionate sexuality of late adolescence and the emotional vulnerability that could lead to a mental meltdown so complete that it destroys the world in which Lucia exists. The result is revelatory of the inherent theatrical power of Donizetti’s masterpiece.

Sierra flawlessly met the role’s principal expectations – technically brilliant runs, cadenzas and trills in the coloratura passages and an elegant legato for much of the rest of Lucia’s part. Yet, she never gave one the sense that we were all watching a diva doing that diva’s Lucia. She was Lucia, not just Nadine Sierra as Lucia.

The Men of Lammermoor and Ravenswood

Despite the outsized importance of the title role to the opera’s success, the opera’s plot is motivated by an inter-generational feud that has made antagonists of the opera’s two male leads – Edgardo (superbly sung by lyric tenor Piotr Beczala) and Enrico (yet another strong vocal and dramatic performance by baritone Brian Mulligan, who has emerged as the San Francisco Opera’s fall season’s busiest star.)

That feud fuels the opera’s dramatic momentum and, properly staged, should culminate in the Wolfscrag scene (the most deplorable of the traditional 19th and 20th century “cuts” in the opera).

[Below: Enrico (Brian Mulligan, right) challenges Edgardo (Piotr Beczala, left) to a fight to the death the next morning; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


At Wolfscrag, where Edgardo resides, he is challenged to a duel by Enrico. [Obviously, a fight to the death between Edgardo and Enrico, the last two protagonists of the feud, should effectively end it.] The logic of the opera’s plot is advanced by giving us the reason for Edgardo’s appearance in the Ravenswood cemetery in the final scene.

The Cavanagh-Rom staging enhances the dramatic situations that the feud has fueled. Beczala provided another name for the list of great lyric tenors whose voices, performing the role of Edgardo, have resonated in San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. (In my own experience these have included Luciano Pavarotti, Neil Shicoff, Marcello Giordani, Ramon Vargas and Giuseppe Filianoti.)

Clad in the New York designer Mattie Ullrich’s costumes and immersed in the production’s staging and scenic design, Beczala exhibited the tenderness, ferocity and despair that is inherent in Donizetti’s vocal line.

[Below: Raimondo (Nicolas Testé, left), Enrico (Brian Mulligan, center) and  Normanno (A. J. Glueckert, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


In the previous month, the Enrico, Brian Mulligan, like Sierra, achieved a career milestone at the San Francisco Opera by replacing the originally announced artist for a significant title role [See Review: Searing Performances by Brian Mulligan and Stephanie Blythe for San Francisco Opera’s First “Sweeney Todd” – September 12, 2015.]

Mulligan produced an intense characterization of Lucia’s brother, responsible for an insolvent estate and all its retinue, willing to cross all ethical lines to gain his sister’s agreement to marry a wealthy and well-connected suitor.

[Below: the preacher Raimondo (Nicolas Testé, left) counsels Lucia (Nadine Sierra, right) to agree to the arranged marriage; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


French basso Nicolas Testé made a strong impression as Lucia’s tutor, the preacher Raimondo, while A. J. Gluekert, whose costume included thick glasses, was Enrico’s thoroughly sinister operative, Normanno.

Another memorable performance was Chong Wang as the bridegroom Arturo (costumed in a way that reminds me of a contemporary leader of a totalitarian regime) .

[Below: Arturo (Chong Wang, center, left) accepts the hand of his soon-to-be brother-in-law Enrico (Brian Mulligan, center, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


It was not just Wang’s well-sung performance that proved so memorable, but that Director Cavanagh provided two striking extra-textual returns of his image – first as Arturo’s naked murdered corpse (played by his body double Charlie Martinez) and then, along with his murderer, Lucia, as one of the half-dozen white-appareled ghostly apparitions, who inhabit the stage in the final scenes.

The ghosts, who also represent Lucia’s deceased mother as well as Edgardo’s father whose death his son vows to revenge, are among the production’s many effective innovations. (Both Nadine Sierra and Chong Wang take their final curtain calls dressed as the ghosts of Lucia and Arturo.)

[Below: Lucia (Nadine Sierra), her bridal train soaked in her bridegroom’s blood, reveals the corpse of Arturo (Supernumerary Charlie Martinez as body double for Chong Wang, who sings the role); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The production also increased the visibility of the character of Alisa, costuming her as a kind of savvy corporate executive assistant.

The Alisa, Zanda Švede, like Wang, is a current Adler Fellow. She exhibited the strong performance skills one now routinely expects of members of major opera company Young Artists’ program, a direct result of the intense competition for these positions from the large pool of operatic talent that currently exists.

Lucia’s Central Drama

“Lucia di Lammermoor” is a Romantic Era work whose melodic content is so effusive that both audiences and opera managements have been content with the opera being staged as if it were merely a string of melodious arias and ensembles for soprano, tenor and baritone.

One indeed can argue that the beautiful duets between the lovers Lucia and Edgardo, and between Lucia and brother Enrico, followed by the glorious Sextet, energetic confrontation between Edgardo and the assembled wedding guests, Lucia’s mad scene, and Edgardo’s desperate final aria and suicide, provide enough thrills for anyone to enjoy an evening at the opera.

And, of course, that is often true. But beautiful music coupled with thrilling dramatic impact makes the operatic experience even more enjoyable.

[Below: the staging of the Sextet in the Ravenswood Castle Great Hall, performed, from left to right, by Zanda Švede (Alisa), Nicolas Testé (Raimondo), Chong Wang (Arturo), Nadine Sierra (Lucia), Piotr Beczala (Edgardo) and Brian Mulligan (Enrico), edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Conductor, Chorus and Orchestra

It was yet another of outstanding performances by San Francisco Opera’s Music Director Nicola Luisotti, conducting the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. The San Francisco Opera Chorus, with much to do in Cavanagh’s staging, performed excellently. (The chorus director is Ian Robertson.)

The orchestra’s principal flautist, Julie McKenzie, who played the flute for the Mad Scene “duet” with Sierra’s Lucia, was given the honor of an onstage solo bow during the final curtain calls.

Director and Set Designer

The collaborative work of Cavanagh and Rom created intense energy in brilliant productions of two 20th century American operas at the War Memorial Opera House [see Review: Racette, Aceto, Jovanovich in Brilliant New Production of “Susannah” – San Francisco Opera, September 6, 2014 and 25 Years Old, “Nixon in China” Arrives at San Francisco Opera – June 8, 2012].

Rom also has designed projections and sets for 18th century works [Review: Blythe, Rae, Shrader Sizzle in Seattle Opera’s Saucy “Semele” – February 25, 2015] and sets for more intimate settings [See Pictures at an Exhibition: John Musto’s Opera “Later the Same Evening” Brings Edward Hopper’s Art to Life: Glimmerglass, August 13, 2011.]

For “Lucia” Cavanaugh and Rom have incorporated powerful images of mountain-rimmed river valleys and the Scottish coastline, where pounding waves periodically reappear, as rectangular shapes enlarge and contract.

The “Lucia” production suggests that the mix of highly dramatic staging, and imposing sets with spectacular projections provides a means of mounting the Italian bel canto operas of the 1830s and 1840s, many of which are undeservedly underperformed.

The bel canto operas were written for great voices, and we live in an era when great voices are available. But many of  these operas, particularly those of Donizetti and the early works of his young protégé, Giuseppe Verdi, have been insufficiently explored for their dramatic content and the potential they have to connect with contemporary audiences.

Presenting these with vibrant, relevant projected images, such as are devised by Cavanagh and Rom, should help build new popularity for these neglected works.

Exploring Cavanagh’s “Dyspostian” World

Director Cavanagh’s major premise is that Lucia and her lover, Edgardo exist in a dyspostian society, whose elements are all bad, as opposed to a utopian society in which good prevails.

(One need not attribute quite so pessimistic a viewpoint to “Lucia di Lammermoor” to note that all three of the first offerings in San Francisco Opera’s 2015-16 season – that includes Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” and Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” – deal with human beings who have no problem with murder and deception to further their own ends.)

However Cavanagh and Rom came to the visual presentation of the opera, it certainly is the most striking and absorbing production of “Lucia” in San Francisco Opera history, easily besting the quite different conceptualizations of Leni Bauer-Ecsy, Carl Toms, Gerard Howland and Graham Vick seen at the War Memorial Opera House over the years.


I enthusiastically recommend the cast, conducting, staging, sets and projections, both to the veteran operagoer and to persons new to opera.

I regard the Cavanagh-Rom production of “Lucia di Lammermoor”, which incorporates forward-looking technologies to enhance the operatic experience, as one of most effective new productions in the extraordinary ten-year stewardship of San Francisco Opera’s General Director David Gockley.


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