France's rare bird soars as Lucia

By Truman C. Wang
Published: 6/28/2008
Photo credit: Terrence McCarthy, San Francisco Opera

CAST: Natalie Dessay (Lucia), Giuseppe Filianoti (Edgardo), Gabriele Viviani (Enrico Ashton), Oren Gradus (Raimondo), Cybele-Teresa Gouverneur (Alisa), Matthew O'Neill (Normanno), Andrew Bidlack (Arturo).  Jean-Yves Ossonce, conductor.  Graham Vick/Marco Gandini, directors.  Paul Brown, production design. Nick Chelton, lighting. Ian Robertson, chorus master.

                                                        Natalie Dessay as Lucia, Act 1

                                                        Natalie Dessay as Lucia, Act 1

If last night's Rheingold was a ‘symphonic opera’, then today's Lucia di Lammermoor is a ‘singers opera’.   Contrary to popular myth, there are no fat ladies in this Lucia.  Instead, you have a diminutive soprano from France who could out-sing and out-trill any canary or nightingale.  Natalie Dessay, the diva du jour in the high coloratura roles, caused quite a stir in her belated San Francisco Opera debut this month.  Next to the Mona Lisa and the Eiffel Tower, Dessay could very well count herself to be one of France’s cultural treasures. 

But let’s not get carried away just yet, for there are other fine singers in the cast.  In the role of Lucia’s lover Edgardo, Italian tenor Giuseppe Fillanoti possesses fine ringing tones and robust high notes, although he has a deplorable habit of throaty, guttural singing for melodramatic effects.  Italian baritone Gabriele Viviani was impressive as Lucia’s brother Lord Henry Ashton, vibrant and well focused, without resorting to histrionics.  Lucia’s maid Alisa (mezzo-soprano Cybele-Teresa Gouverneur), her tutor Raimondo (bass Oren Gradus), her suitor Arturo (tenor Andrew Bidlack) were all strong and well sung. 

The opera, however, is named Lucia after all.  It is a showcase for the high coloratura soprano to display her brilliant skills at projecting the lyrical pathos of a demented heroine (mad scenes are a common dramatic device in the early 19th-Century operas of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini – the so-called bel canto operas)  It is not enough simply to trill and chirp like a canary, but a great singer must also be able to mold the notes into tear droplets and the delicate melodies into sighs of despair, reflecting the heroine’s fragile mental state.  There are only a handful of coloratura sopranos today capable of accomplishing such feats, and Dessay is arguably the finest of them all.  In the theater, Dessay projected a bell-like bright tone with a pleasing honeyed glow in the center (which somehow gets lost on her commercial recordings).  The voice, although slender , was capable of great intensity and pierced through the famous sextet (“Chi mi frena in tal momento”)  like an angelic voice from above.  Her very great singing in the Mad Scene offered an object lesson in the art of bel canto, with flawless execution and astonishing virtuosity – all while rolling around in agony in her blood-drenched white gown.   For the Mad Scene, San Francisco Opera employed a special instrument called the verrophone (like the glass harmonica specified by Donizetti, but has a bigger sound).  It produced fragile, other-worldly tones that would soon accompany the dying Lucia into the next world. 

                                                       Luca, Act Two 'Mad Scene'

                                                       Luca, Act Two 'Mad Scene'

Unlike Rheingold heard the night before, the orchestra in Lucia was relegated to the role of the accompanist, playing oomph-pah’s most of the time.  French conductor Jean-Yves Ossonce nonetheless whipped up a lot of white heat in the sextet as well as in the Act 2 Wolf Crag Scene (aided by electronic thunder and wind).  The opera was presented more or less complete, with only minor cuts in the second verses of several baritone cabalettas. 

The production design by Paul Brown feature a wind-swept dead oak tree, movable partition panels for indoor scenes, and an ominously huge moon.  The famous well that Lucia sings about in Act 1 is curiously absent.  Nick Chelton’s lighting makes sure all the sets are covered in doom and gloom, with the exception of the brightly-lit groom and his unwilling bride in their gleaming white wedding costumes.   Veteran British director Graham Vick gives his singers room to roam, but unlike in Ariodante, the singers getb to receive their applauses while on stage. 

As always, the San Francisco Opera Chorus was superb, singing the lament “Oh qual funesto avvenimento” powerfully and movingly. 

In the end, Natalie Dessay was the raison d'être that people came to see this Lucia, and she exceeded their highest expectations.  Viva Donizetti!  Vive la France!