Monday, March 2, 2015

A Mad Bride, Her Lover and an Evil Brother

Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor
New York Opera Exchange
February 27, 2015 - Church of the Covenant

Photo credit: NY Opera Exchange
Lei: Lucia and Edgardo are in love, but her evil brother Enrico won’t have it as Edgardo is an enemy of his estate and, most importantly, he needs his sister to marry a rich nobleman to restore the family’s finances. Evil brother and his chaplain sidekick do some letter forging and trick Lucia into believing that Edgardo betrayed her love with another woman. Lucia is very upset and ends up giving into her brother’s pressure to marry the rich nobleman. Marriage contracts are signed but, when it comes to the newlyweds’ first night, the bride goes mad, murders her groom and dies shortly thereafter in full dementia swing with visions of a happy life with her true love Edgardo. When the latter hears the sad news, he cannot stand life without Lucia and kills himself. Curtain.

Lui: Based on Sir Walter Scott’s sprawling novel, The Bride of Lammermoor, this Donizetti opera packs a lot of quintessential operatic drama into a tight little package, with a complex score laden with beautiful bel canto. Amazing singers always make a difference, but even more so in an opera like Lucia, which cannot really be done successfully with just mediocre singers. This is after all an opera that has for years served as a vehicle for gifted singers, sopranos, in particular, though the tenor role is also showcased.

Sarah Beckham-Turner
Lei: NY Opera Exchange’s cast not only did not have a single weak link (if only we could say this about every performance at the Met), but also featured some truly extraordinary singers. Lucia’s mad scene was a great display of virtuosity and was also very moving. Soprano Sarah Beckham-Turner made a couple of pauses in her a cappella moments with the flute as her only accompaniment that truly left me holding my breath. Her bursts of tenderness, despair and joy in Lucia’s rollercoaster of mood swings through a series of unhinged, staccato scales as she descends into insanity had me shed copious tears, making me connect and empathize with this character like never before. Before she got to the mad scene I thought this soprano was technically skilled and very powerful (with high notes a bit out of control at times) but not a particularly moving heroine. I changed my mind after hearing Beckham-Turner in the mad scene, that made me rethink entirely how this scene can work and how one can deeply and viscerally relate to it.
Alternate cast NYOE promotional material
Photo credit: Jiyang Chen
Joseph Michael Brent
Tenor Joseph Michael Brent made me weep too, his sound is beautiful, round and tender but also agile and powerful. Brent is truly a romantic hero, with a handsome stage presence and an expressiveness to match. He also worked great in his duets with both Lucia (Ah! Verranno a te sull’aure) and Enrico (O sole più rapido a sorger t’appresta). In his arias in the finale, Brent was heart breaking, particularly in Fra poco a me ricovero, when Egardo still thinks that Lucia betrayed him. He may have rushed a touch too much in Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali, but otherwise proved himself as a swooningly excellent tenor.

Alternate cast NYOE promotional material 
Photo credit: Jiyang Chen
Lui: Brent's Tu che a Dio spiegasti l'ali might have come out a bit rushed, but I nevertheless felt that the tempo gave the ending an appropriate sense of urgency. It is certainly one way to take Edgardo's final spellbinding suicide aria, though it may not the most contemplative interpretation. I found it emotionally raw and true to the character in the throes of his big exit from this world. Though I admit I have a weak spot for the plaintive repetition of "bell'alma innamorata" with which the opera ends. I found Brent very confident with his diction. His Italian was very good as was the sound of his voice, which is on the middle to higher end of the tenor spectrum but still remains very manly. He owned his every move in his delivery of this most moving of finales.
John Viscardi

Lei: Baritone John Viscardi as Enrico was by far my favorite singer on stage. True, I have a thing for mellifluous baritones playing evil characters, but Viscardi was next level. Smooth, musical, deep and dark, even snarling at times. His opening aria Crudel funesta smania and the Act III duet with Edgardo were the best moments of the evening. His singing is vigorous, fluid and agile. Viscardi’s acting was spot on too, with an intense and commanding stage presence.  Truly a pleasure to hear and see, this is a young artist to closely follow.

Alternate cast NYOE promotional material 
Photo credit: Jiyang Chen
Lui: Viscardi was out of this world. For such a young singer he really packed a punch. There were moments, like in his opening numbers in Act II, where I even felt like he was channeling his inner Peter Mattei. His voice was really so smooth when he sang: Appressati, Lucia. It was like he too was seducing his sister to his will. You could really feel that he was savoring the sensory sound of the words in his mouth, their flavor and musicality, and this to me is the sign of a really good singer. Someone who is able to open up a space to savor the music of the language in ways that are expressive while at the same manage to stop time. Viscardi did this a couple of times for me. In fact, both of the male leads really did that for me tonight.

Lei: Bass-baritone Antoine Hodge as the scheming chaplain was also solid, his Cedi Cedi very musical, and his recount of Lucia’s madness moving. Mezzo Chelsea Laggan had a minor role as Lucia’s confidante Alisa but sang it accurately and expressively. We discovered her in Die Fledermaus where she played the more comic role of Prince Orlofsky and it was a pleasure to see that she can as easily and effectively portray a tragic Donizetti bel canto character.
Chelsea Laggan
Photo credit: Jiyang Chen
Sets were virtually non-existent, boiling down to a black box of a stage framed by the curtain. The whole thing cried for something more to engage the eye. Some drapes in the background, a chandelier, some branches, some rocks, something. While this simplicity made scene changes as quick as it took to close the curtain and bring in or out a desk and a chair, I think that the overall experience could have benefitted from some more stage props. True, simplicity can help focus on the singing but I do stand by the fact that a staged opera is a full package that needs staging and here sets were just not there and direction was extremely basic.

Lui: If nothing else some attention to setting more the scenes could have contributed to the storytelling aspect of the performance, which needed just a little livening up. Though it really is about the music and what a pleasant surprise it was that the music was delivered so impressively by this cast. It is clear that the company is limited by the minuscule size of the stage. In scenes when the chorus is out there too, there really isn't much space for anything else. Solid singing that is bolstered by solid acting is enough for me to elevate a show like this from the level of a mere recital to that of a staged production. And these young singers had some pretty solid acting chops when it came to that.

Alden Gatt
Lei: While the 43 piece orchestra led by Alden Gatt did justice to Donizetti’s score and kept tempos brisk, the space’s acoustics were a bit unfortunate for an orchestra this size. The music was often too powerful for the space and singers were forced to go in full cry, other times the volume of orchestra and singers were off, not fully working together. With all the unused theaters around NYC, why on earth a company with this level of artistry cannot perform in a venue with better acoustics is beyond me.

Lui: I was actually glad to hear the orchestra playing all out. I felt like it gave the singers a chance to really go big. And all of the principals were strong enough to sing out over the orchestra. Rarely were they ever drowned out by the orchestra, which was remarkable. It is not a bad makeshift space for an evening of opera. Something more comfortable with a better balance between orchestra and singers, stage and audience could work better. Not only does the orchestra take up a third of the house but as it is the conductor becomes a bit of an obstacle for viewing the action on the stage from time to time. I would love to see the NY Opera Exchange find a place where they can spread their creative wings a bit more. They have incredibly well developed marketing and branding, their promotional photos have dramatic vision, and their website is first class, with character studies and informational materials to lure even the more reluctant contemporary opera virgin to the medium. They deserve a stage where they can realize a similar level of production values for their shows, a space capable of more nuanced lighting perhaps or one that opens up possibilities for staging a spectacle that matches their solid musical talent.

- Lei & Lui

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