[For the 2011 telecast go here.]

The Met’s HD transmission (February 7, 2009) of Donizetti’s romantic melodrama Lucia Di Lammermoor showed both the best and worst of what this medium (televised opera) offers. Both result from the audience seeing what’s happening on stage. Let’s get the worst over with right away. Mary Zimmerman directed this production. It was her first outing as an opera director. It’s not going to be her last. She’s got La Sonnambula coming up later in this Met season.

Ms Zimmerman moved the opera’s period from the 17th century to the 19th for the sole reason of ruining the opera’s great sextet. The action is supposed to stop during this ensemble as the characters express their emotional turmoil in a glorious set piece. Zimmerman had the brilliant idea of introducing a photographer who groups five of the six in a wedding portrait. These five are moved around while they’re singing the great ensemble. Edgardo, of course, is excluded. When the sextet ends a flash goes off. If the opera were set when it’s supposed to be we couldn’t have had this adventitious photographer. Zimmerman’s imposition was moronic, idiotic, stupid, fatuous, asinine, witless, screwy, inane, ditzy, absurd, nutty, loony, bizarre… Incompetent directors are the norm in opera, but they don’t often intrude on the music. There was laughter during the sextet.

Also muddle headed was having a physician complete with a black bag give Lucia an injection towards the end of the Mad Scene. The real blame for this intrusion on the score belongs to the conductors who allowed it – James Levine in 2007 and Marco Armiliato in this run. Can you imagine Arturo Toscanini allowing a nudnik like Zimmerman and her photographer anywhere near any of his Lucias?  Capital punishment for this musical murder is not a stretch. Enough about the director. I’ll get another chance to kick her around next month.

What was good about this production was the attractiveness and dramatic intensity of it’s principals – all Slavs. Anna Netrebko back from maternity leave is still beautiful though, with about 20 more pounds than ante-partum, she looks more like a young matron than an ingénue. Her voice is richer than when I last heard her; maybe it’s all that oxytocin or the extra weight. Regardless, her fulsome sound dictates her approach to one of opera’s seminal roles. She accentuates the dramatic characteristics of the doomed Lucia. Her approach downplays the runs and high notes that typify the usual portrayal of this role. Her Lucia is most like Callas’s. Her vocal and physical beauty combined with her great strength as an actress made her a powerful and moving heroine. It was a great performance.

In the first act “Regnava nel silenzo” complete with a live “dead” girl and “Quando, rapito in estasi” gained much from seeing Netrebko as well as hearing her. Gary Halvorson’s video direction had so many really close close-ups that I feared he would bring out an electron microscope before the performance ended. Netrebko gave a sense of the vulnerability that would end in madness in this scene. “Verrano a te” (I’ll come to the tenor part in a moment) one of opera’s most inspired and beautiful melodies was so good that it required a curtain call instead of a cut to the backstage ant hill of a gigantic scene change that killed all suspension of disbelief. Spending an intermission looking at a factory is not appropriate for a visit to the opera even if it is in a remote location. The Met should rethink its intermissions.

The first scene of Act 2 where Enrico convinces Lucia to marry the rich but witless Arturo, soon the be the late Arturo, was also played for maximum dramatic effect. Lucia may be a bel canto opera, but it also has the most dramatic thrust and power of its genre. It’s no accident that Verdi’s Il Trovatore, which marked the end of this type of Italian opera had the same librettist. And even Verdi for all his genius and power couldn’t top Lucia though he could match it.

Mad sceneThe Mad Scene was 20 minutes of dramatic tension, except for the medical intrusion. Netrebko, accompanied for part of the scene by a glass harmonica was riveting. As I said, this was not the Lucia of Melba or Tettrazini. There was not a basket of runs, trills, staccati, and vocal ornaments. Everything she sang was intended to draw you into the heroine’s awful descent to madness. I’ve been watching Lucia for more than 50 years and my reaction to most of the Mad Scenes I’ve seen (this doesn’t include the one time I saw Callas in the role as well as several others) has been impatience – let’s get it over so we can see what the tenor can do with opera’s moving last scene. Netrebko’s acting was as integral to her performance as her singing. If you were just listening you lost at least half of her riveting performance.

Roland Villazon was scheduled to sing Edgardo. He sang two performances in this run with Netrebko and then withdrew because of “illness.” He’s not ill his voice is broken. He hasn’t been right since he returned from his six month rest stop. If his voice can’t be fixed it will be a terrible loss for opera.

Piotr Beczala as the Duke in Rigoletto

Piotr Beczala as the Duke in Rigoletto

He was replaced by the Polish tenor Piotr Beczala. Beczala made his Met debut as the Duke in Rigoletto at the end of 2006. He sang Edgardo with Diana Damrau in seven Lucias last October. This performance was his 13th with the company. A lucky number as things turned out. The 42 year old tenor (he looks 10 years younger) has a focused lyric tenor that is secure throughout its range. His singing was lovely and was well received. The opera’s concluding scene which is essentially one long solo for the tenor was well sung and moving. It was tough having to follow such an effective Mad Scene, yet he managed to capture the audience’s attention. Edgardo is about as demanding a role as he should sing. If he stays in the lyric repertoire he can have a major career.

Baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, another Pole, actually managed to make something out of Enrico. A second rank baritone usually gets this part and gets lost with all the attention focused on the doomed lovers.  Kwiecien has a dark, but not hefty, baritone which he pushed a little too hard. He was a convincing villain. He wishes to take on newer roles. I assume that means Verdi roles. He has the sound for those roles, but he’ll need to produce his tone with a little less stress. He also held the high note too long at the end of his duet with Lucia. This is the note that caused Maria Callas to ruin Enzo Sordello’s Met career after she cracked on her high note and he held his (which follows the soprano’s).

Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov did as much as possible with Raimondo. He has a well controlled lyric voice. I’d like to hear him in a bigger part. Wearing a jeweled cross it’s difficult to tell what Christian denomination he represented – certainly not Scottish Presbyterian. He also held a high note too long – just before Lucia starts the Mad Scene.

This production opened the conventional cuts in Lucia – most notably the duet between Lucia and Raimundo in the second act and and the Wolf’s Crag scene at the beginning of the third act. While restoring this music is harmless it’s not up to the standard of the rest of the work. Opening the cuts does make the dramatic continuity clearer.

Marco Armiliato conducted with more vigor than he showed leading Adriana Lecouvreur the previous evening. Perhaps the geriatric context of that performance explains his stultifyingly soporific conducting. In Lucia he was his usual vigorous self. Even with the directorial missteps, this was one of the best HD broadcasts in this series.

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