Lucia di Lammermoor
Thru April 6
Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Blvd.
To carry a bel canto opera like Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, a performance needs two things: energetic chemistry and a killer soprano. With fine coloratura and musical cohesiveness, Opera in the Heights’s new production has both.
Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 novel The Bride of Lammermoor was adapted for opera four times in twenty years, but only Donizetti’s 1835 version survives. Set in 17th century Scotland, the story is a version of the Romeo and Juliet story, with the heroine, Lucia, falling in love with a scion of a rival clan. At the beginning of the opera, Lucia’s brother Enrico plots to marry her to a wealthy suitor in order to restore the family’s fortune. When he discovers that his sister intends instead to marry Edgardo, a member of the Ravenswood family and his sworn enemy, Enrico vows to destroy the relationship by any means necessary, with predictably tragic consequences.
Following their rambunctious 1960s-themed production of Don Giovanni, OH has chosen to end the season on a more solemn note. The prelude’s funereal horns and slow drumbeats foreshadow the opera’s tragic trajectory. Lucia certainly isn’t a jovial tale, but even so, this production felt particularly somber. Picture a spare 17th-century cathedral in Scotland with all the traditional Highland dress—kilts, sporrans, and tartans. Set in stiff rows, the singers’ blocking came off as conservative. The usual fire conductor (and OH artistic director) Enrique Carreón-Robledo pulls from the orchestra sounded, perhaps intentionally, quelled.
Against this muted backdrop, soprano Jessica Jones, singing the title role, positively gleams. (In some performances the role is sung by Amanda Kingston.) It’s a difficult part, filled with relentless scales and arpeggios, turns and trills. It also takes sustained emotional energy to really punch up Lucia’s famous mad scene, the moment most people are waiting for. Jones’s voice carries best in its higher range, dulcet yet definite. At the height of the mad scene, Jones dances up to a spectacularly high note and then trills at a whisper—it is astonishing.
The flute, which echoes Lucia here so intimately, was representative of the orchestra’s overall talent. Characterized by cleanly delineated breaks between recitative and vocal solos, the bel canto tradition requires precise orchestral attentiveness to the singers. Carreón-Robledo anticipated every moment of nuanced musical conversation with the effortless charm of a good dinner host.
Matching Jones in rigor and making a role debut as Enrico, the Mexican-born Octavio Moreno is a baritone I’d like to hear again. Moreno’s voice rings out commandingly with textured emotional agility and a thick, round timbre. As the chaplain Raimondo, bass-baritone Rubin Casas echoes Moreno’s rich voice at a lower range—I, too, would take advice from a clergyman with voice of such depth.
On the other hand, tenor Anthony Webb, in the role of Edgardo, sings with a more constricted vibrato. As Lucia’s impassioned lover, Webb’s impressive emotional energy never falters, but his voice lacks a certain warmth.
Even so, the ensemble these singers create in the D-flat sextet “Chi mi frena in tal momento” is remarkable. Occurring in the second act, right as Edgardo swoops in on Lucia’s marriage, the sextet exemplifies conflicting emotions—it’s the one moment Enrico seems to have second thoughts about selling his sister to save the family honor. In a tragedy-ridden plot, this part of the opera is surprisingly light and sumptuous.
Bolstered by a new executive director, Stephanie Helms, OH recently announced their 2014–2015 season with the catchphrase “Once upon a tale.” It’s a promising line-up—Verdi’s Rigoletto, Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, Mozart’s lesser-known La Clemenza di Tito, and Bizet’s Carmen—although Rigoletto and Carmen were just staged this season by the Houston Grand Opera. OH offers a more intimate experience, but I’m curious whether the two works will stand out as something new and different a scant year later. Either way, this singular production of Lucia augurs auspiciously for the season to come.