Scottish moors and forbidding towers have ways of inspiring violence and insanity. Even Lady MacBeth’s blood-stained dress pales against Lucia’s blood-soaked wedding gown in Portland Opera’s Lucia di Lammermoor, which opened Friday at Keller Auditorium for a two-weekend run.
Opera is about excess, at least this sort of tragic singer-centric opera where a cold-hearted, insecure brother like Enrico (baritone Weston Hurt) wants to break up true lovers—his family enemy, Edgardo (tenor Scott Ramsay), and his sister, Lucia (Elizabeth Futral). If you can’t go over the top with this production, you will be left in the Keller’s lobby, drinking. So go with it, and go with abandon. Speaking of lifeblood, this Lucia, prolific Gaetano Donizetti’s most-performed opera, brings crucial bold new blood to PO, including leads Futral (Lucia), Ramsay (Edgardo), stage director Doug Scholz-Carlson, set designer Christine Jones and lighting “recreationist” Scott Bolman.
This production milks to the hilt blood and the dynamics of broken, betrayed and mis-timed love. When wired-up, thoroughly charged soprano Futral emerges in the third act—blood-smeared head to toe, eyes glassy, a distraught nutty smile—to sing Lucia’s extraordinary 15-minute “mad-scene” aria, the opera reaches its peak of piling it on.
Bewildered, the full chorus— women clad in blood-red mock wedding gowns, veils flung back by the men’s swords— watches Lucia break down. The delicious tragic excess can’t amp up much more. (The chorus has a large part, thanks to Donizetti, who broadened its role with his operas.)
Certainly the 1835 piece, a precursor of harmonious flowing-melody romantic operas like Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme and Madama Butterfly, is a singer’s opera. If accomplished singers aren’t producing at the top of their games, the opera flops, even if the production is as well-rendered and edgy as this one with its dramatic lighting, spare sets and moments of violence. But lucky for us, the singers can sing, especially the leads.
Futral energetically manages her huge, emotionally fraught part. She hits the high notes over and over, and even if some listeners might complain about her florid, decorative, ever-present vibrato, she makes up for any flaws with her versatile acting. She moves from little-girl flirty and lovesick in the first act to recalcitrant and truculent when her brother, the insecure Enrico, forces her to marry Arturo to secure family ties. In a shockingly violent yet subtle moment, Enrico rips the back of her dress with a knife to convince Lucia to face the wedding gown that hangs portentously on a skeleton-like rack.
Arturo is sung by Ian Jose Ramirez, whose tenor sounded slight next to Ramsay’s, which might have exposed Arturo’s weak character. Most likely, Ramirez, a PO resident artist, is developing his voice. Another slight weakness: George Manahan’s mostly spot-on musical directing, especially in the third-act aria where Lucia exchanges notes with the flute, drowns out mezzo-soprano Melissa Fajardo, who sings Alisa.
Ramsay, cast as star-crossed lover Edgardo, is a powerhouse. Agile despite his girth and the long coat that gets in his way every so often, he looks like a beefier, handsomer Gerard Depardieu, bull-thick neck et al. He sings often on his knees, and there is little lovelier than his final aria (“Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali”) as he writhes in pain from stabbing himself, heading toward heaven with his beloved and lost Lucia. Over the top, of course, but exquisite.
By the way, the men’s coats designed by Constance Hoffman (The Cunning Little Vixen) should draw fashion hounds to this performance. They’re simply gorgeous, made in such manly textiles as leather, heavy wool and faux fur. Normanno (sung by tenor Carl Halverson), who swashbuckles about in a long sleek version, is the guy to keep your eye on if leather is your thing.
PO staged Lucia in 2004, but it was so unremarkable I can barely remember it. This production, created by James Robinson, premiered in 2001 at Minnesota Opera. Robinson has a long history at PO. He directed Cosi fan Tutte in 2010; La Traviata in 2008; Norma in 2007; 2006’s Nixon in China and Turandot in 1995. This Lucia, directed in Portland by newcomer Doug Scholz-Carlson, took PO’s former production up notches, adding edge and soaring singing. It is both spare in design and lush in singing, and the balance works.
Christine Jones, a Tony Award-winner (American Idiot) and recent nominee for Spring Awakening, designed minimalist sets that multi-function as castles, walls, tower ruins, moors and gardens. Scott Bolman’s lighting changes melodramatically and frequently throughout the piece. It plays with shadows, reflections and scrims to further enhance the ominous underlying betrayals and trajectory of the opera.
If the corny libretto by regular Donizetti collaborator Salvatore Cammarano based on Sir Walter Scott’s popular 19th-century novel, The Bride of Lammermoor, doesn’t exactly steal your heart—and Futral does not quite have the subtlety of Maria Callas, who put her signature on the Lucia role—the crowd-pleasing opera rates as one of PO’s recent best. Make sure you can handle the sight of blood, fake or not.