Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Double Madness of Lucia

Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor
Heartbeat Opera Spring Festival
Opening Night Gala
Theatre at St. Clement’s
March 12, 2016

Soil feels like freedom to Lucia
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Lei: How does a mad or sick person hear music? This is the point of departure for director Louisa Proske’s visionary take on Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, featured at this year’s Heartbeat Opera Spring Festival. Hers is an adaptation of the bel canto classic, where both plot and score are stripped down to a 90-minute show (against the roughly 150-minute duration of the original), displaying the brilliant talents of 5 musicians and 6 singers. At this point, purists may be cringing – no chorus, no orchestra, wild cuts to the plot. But they would be mistaken. Heartbeat Opera’s Lucia turned out to be one of the most electrifying performances I have ever experienced. Proske delivered a chamber riff on Lucia, placing the power of bel canto vocal acrobatics front and center in the intimate space of the Theatre at St. Clement’s in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen, with the result that the sound waves and the emotions they carried struck us with such force that they remained with us for a long while.

Lui: The show starts with the stage divided in two on the diagonal by a translucent curtain. On one side, the floor is covered with the dirt of the Scottish moorland, strewn with props from the opera’s plot: an antique desk and two ornate chairs, as well as a piano and music stands for the rest of the ensemble strewn across stage right. On the other side, through the curtain we can see a vaguely retro looking hospital room. A woman, the one who is going to spend the next ninety minutes living out the story of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in the fantasy playground of her institutionalized mind, is restrained by her wrists and ankles to her bed. As the lights go up on the asylum portion of the stage, her lifeless body slowly begins to writhe out of discomfort, like a woman possessed struggling to get free. A nurse and doctor check on the patient and sedate her with an injection.  

Donizetti plays on the radio and the crazy get crazier
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
As the nurse exits the scene, she turns on the radio. Through its scratchy speaker, we hear the first signature bars of Donizetti’s score played by a full orchestra. It is as though the opera is being beamed in to the poor patient from a distant place and another time. In just that moment, one by one, the musicians file in and take their places on the other half of the stage, like musical ghosts conjured by the mind of the sick woman. The clarinet is the first to kick in. He begins to shadow the recording until the five piece ensemble takes over completely and the first scene of Enrico and his sidekicks begins to unfold right before the protagonist’s eyes. She is captivated by the action on the other side of the screen. Longing for her freedom she eventually gets up the courage to penetrate that fourth wall of gauzy muslin. She passes through it like a thin tissue that separates her life of captivity and illness from the world of story, dream and imagination. Maybe this really is how a crazy person listens to music.

Lei: In this take, the Lucia character travels back and forth between the “real” world of the insane asylum and the opera’s musical imaginary world populated by belligerent flashy gangsters (donning Versace looking jackets and brandishing gold plated guns). The line between the two universes is often blurred until the madness scene, when Lucia pushes the curtain aside and the worlds collide from that moment on. The fact that all singers (except Edgardo) doubled as actors in the hospital scenes worked amazingly well to emphasize Lucia’s fantasy attributing known faces to the opera characters. The men who make her suffer in real life are also those who make her miserable in the imaginary opera world.

Ecstatic rapture (and a toy piano)
Photo credit: Jill Steinberg
Musically, Heartbeat’s co-music director Dan Schlosberg accomplished the herculean task of adapting the original Donizetti score to something that could be performed by five musicians. Granted, the quintet was very hard working and played a slew of instruments between them (cello, clarinet, electric guitar, classical guitar, two pianos, and as many as a dozen different types of percussion). The soundscape created by the ensemble was wildly diverse and at times even bordered on the wacky (toy piano) and often consisted in a series of disjointed musical outbursts linked to the peaks of emotional distress. While this approach took away any real fluidity to the score, it did work perfectly with the concept of a mad person listening to music. Schlosberg’s adaptation work was ambitious and impressive, with heaps of out of the box and irreverent ideas (some more successful than others), all while conveying the musical core of the Donizetti original. The guy not only inventively adapted, but effectively conducted and played (pianos), too, truly executing his vision with force and energy. Having managed so much with only 5 musicians, I would be curious to see what Schlosberg could do with a bigger ensemble.

Lui: One of the most striking adaptations of the Donizetti score was the mad scene, the first bars of which evolved out of a guitar accompaniment akin to something out of a dreamy Beach House song. The soundscape then morphs into the uncanny creativity of a Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson. Yet you could still feel the Donizetti at its core, underneath it all along, even in the tinkling of the toy piano keys that pianist Schlosberg deployed to heighten the sense of childish regression implicit in this extreme phase of her psychiatric state. Leaning down to his right while conducting and seemingly doing a million other things at once, he put to good use the toddler’s instrument half buried in the dirt of the dreamy moorland.

The flashy gangsters
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
The highlight of the mad scene, though, was soprano Jamilyn Manning-White as Lucia. It was a real star turn for her, as everything about her was well suited to this take on the opera. When she was in love, reunited with her Edgardo in the first “act,” her eyes glistened and sparkled with real feeling. As her madness intensified, her eyes grew to big tender full moons, inspiring compassion for this sensitive soul who only seems to ever find herself under the thumb of oppressive patriarchal society in one way or another. What is a girl to do? I was afraid her voice would be too shrill and friable in its upper range to carry the evening, but instead she showed that her voice has continued to mature with her exploration of the role. I found her to be ever dynamic, moving from a girlish chest voice to an increasingly crazed head voice. She made for a thrilling Lucia in every way.

I just stabbed my husband (or was that my hand?)
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Lei: The beauty of Manning-White’s voice is untraditional to say the least, but she nevertheless used every inch of her instrument to stunning effect for this take on the Lucia role. The soprano carried the show between the two worlds with a sensational performance vocally and acting-wise. Particularly endearing was her joyful rolling in the dirt in her first moments of freedom in the world of music, when she also dreamily cozies up to the pianist/composer as the music is so beautiful. But, all the extremity of her emotions quickly explode back into madness, and the wall between the two worlds comes down with some highly dramatic moments (think of the husband-murdering scene: Lucia mimics the climactic killing on her hospital bed though it turns out she is really stabbing her hand with surgical scissors). This Lucia was ALWAYS on stage either actively or as a spectator from her insane asylum room, reminding me a lot of the take on Verdi’s Giovanna D’Arco at La Scala earlier this year. Really a tour de force for Manning-White who managed to express an incredible range of colors and emotions through the sheer force of her singing: crazy, happy, loving, furious, defiant, scared, victim, murderer, desperate. And that’s when you know that you have a sensational Lucia.

The doomed couple
Photo credit: Jill Steinberg
Lui: Tenor David Guzman’s Edgardo exuded experience and confidence. It shows that he is a singer who has been around and he really brought a lot to the role. His sound is warm and his characterization was of the dutiful young man ready to serve with integrity and poetry the demands of love and war. So many of Edgardo’s arias are central to the thrust of the story that by the end he fully inhabits the emotional core of the opera right alongside Lucia. And Proske’s take really put him right there with her. His Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali was transcendent. Though here they cut eight minutes of the build up to his big dramatic final gesture, jumping right to the crowd pleaser aria was still potent, especially in Guzman’s hands. He was tender but guttural and his big masculine voice soared like the wings he gives to Lucia’s soul with his song. It sent shivers through my whole body. As he slowly walked backwards off the stage singing the last few bars of his concluding aria and thus fading to black his presence in Lucia’s dream life, he left us alone with a nearly lifeless inpatient sprawled out on the side of her bed, I did not want the steady euphoria to end.

Lei: Guzman is definitely a warm, swoon-inducing tenor. His is a full voice, manly, heart-wrenching, solid and secure. Both his Sulla tomba and Tu che a dio spiegasti l’ali were masterfully delivered, he did not flinch once, not even on the highest notes of the final aria, that he rode with superhuman control. This is a charismatic singer of that rare breed of earth-shaking irresistible and seductive tenors. To follow closely.

Games with medical gauze
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Lui: Even though Edgardo’s emoting in the finale was reduced to the greatest hits, Lucia’s mad scene was given all the stage time it deserves and Manning-White was up to the task. She rose to the occasion and put all of her virtuosity on display. Particularly impressive was the passage of her metamorphosis into a bird. Suddenly interacting with the orchestra in a dynamic call and response, she seems to be hearing voices riding on the air. Then she tests out her voice in a fantasy conversation with the instruments that call back to her, only to sprout vocal wings and soar out in front of her musical accompaniment like a joyous little bird, either that or a woman possessed. This is the moment that she unfolds her wings to God, virtually literalizing the metaphor that Edgardo deploys in his final aria, Tu che a dio spiegasti l’ali. Is this what a crazy person experiences when they listen to music? I can’t speak for all the crazy people out there, but it sure was phenomenal for me.

Enrico torturing his sister
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Lei: Baritone Matthew Singer was a brutal, powerful yet lyrical Enrico. In his opening aria Cruda, funesta smania his voice boomed with menace but also possessed a seductive beauty (this is bel canto after all!), the finale of which was punctuated by the most violent apple-chopping I’ve ever seen. Singer’s Italian is impeccable and his characterization of the opera’s main villain was deliciously vicious. In Lucia’s sick mind, this Enrico is a threatening, scary thug sporting a red leather coat and bowler hat (and playing Russian roulette with a gold-plated gun). Interestingly, after showing Lucia the fake letter from Edgardo, Enrico injects her with a drug, to emphasize that Lucia would not have changed her mind so easily if she was in her senses and to make a dreamlike connection back to the hospital. This was a clever touch that attempted to lend an air of greater believability to a juncture in the plot that usually demands the suspension of disbelief from the audience.

All of the men oppressing Lucia
Photo credit: Jill Steinberg
John Taylor Ward as the priest Raimondo was mellifluous and Mephistophelic, through a beautiful smooth bass, which was surprising to me as I was never particularly impressed by or interested in the Raimondo character in other versions of Lucia I’ve seen. This Raimondo was key to the repulsive yet hypnotic scene in which the gang of men conspire to finally convince Lucia to surrender as he dressed her into her wedding gown with medical gauze (incidentally, the same singer doubles as the doctor in the hospital world who would later wrap her hand after she stabbed it in her hospital bed). Ward’s slightly perverse and very corrupt clergyman was one of the highlights of the evening. Tenor Christopher S. Lilley on double duty as Arturo and Normanno displayed solid lyrical bel canto phrasing. Mezzo Monica Soto-Gil as Lucia’s confidante Alisa had a nice sound and was particularly brilliant in the ensemble pieces.

Moving to the musical world
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Lui: Louisa Proske outdid herself with this one. It takes real courage to play so fast and loose with Donizetti. Though she is not catering to the purists with this outing, she nevertheless undeniably has real vision and her Lucia is hands down one of the most accomplished evenings of theater I have experienced in a long time. All the moving parts came together for an experience that was just: Wow! Beyond wow! She mustered all the tools in her box of stagecraft tricks to tell an utterly invigorating version of this classic operatic story. The lighting, stage design, directorial concept, and setting were all superbly polished. And it didn’t hurt things at all that the singing was so top notch. Not to mention the phenomenal talent of Dan Schlosberg who reset Donizetti’s brilliant bel canto score. His fantasy alone had us on the edge of our seats. He took us on a musical journey from an ostensibly Max Richter-style riff on a classic, into which he introduced pop elements in the guitar accompaniment, to the kind of the experimentation one has come to expect from creative minds as diverse as Brian Wilson and John Cage. This was an evening of opera like few are able to deliver on any level of the spectrum from the best independent companies to the major leagues. Louisa Proske (and her team) is one to watch out for!

An inmate gets treated
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Lei: This Lucia was a display of bold, innovative vision, exquisitely executed with an attention to detail and perfectionism in every single aspect of the production. We may have come to appreciate Louisa Proske for some of the frilly comedies she has done in the past, but here she definitely flexed her dramatic muscles and delivered a hauntingly multi-layered tragedy that was both deep and dark. This is a cutting edge innovative fresh reinterpretation of the operatic canon done at a miniature intimate level. Opera distilled to its essence, indeed, and reinvented too, casting a new thought-provoking light on a classic while staying true to the core of the original. It’s with artists like Proske that opera remains timeless yet radically new at the same time – there is hope for the art form after all. I cannot wait to see what Proske does next (rumor has it that she may be conducting LoftOpera’s Così in the fall, which would be the best of all worlds!).

– Lei & Lui 

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