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'Lucia di Lammermoor's' bright, shining madness

Anguish, blood-letting, and a timeless story combine with brilliantly sung arias in Seattle Opera's latest production.

Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak plays the title role in 'Lucia di Lammermoor.'

Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak plays the title role in 'Lucia di Lammermoor.' Seattle Opera photo by Rosarii Lynch

Lucia with Edgardo, played by William Burden.

Lucia with Edgardo, played by William Burden. Seattle Opera photo by Rosarii Lynch

The first of several heart-stopping moments in Seattle Opera's dazzling new production of Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor comes in the first act. Lucia, sung with crystalline brilliance by the Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, entwines her limbs with Edgardo's (tenor William Burden) as they pledge eternal love. In the audience, you can't help but fall in love with the singers, even though you know there's trouble ahead — big trouble.

Meanwhile, the music keeps on coming. When Lucia premiered in 1835, Donizetti was the king of Italian opera composers, with Rossini retired, Bellini dead, and Verdi still on the horizon. For continental audiences of the 19th century, the Scotland of Sir Walter Scott's romantic novels was a wild and woolly emotional frontier of stormy landscapes dotted with rugged cliffside castles and populated by endlessly warring clans. (For all that, the setting of this Lucia is more Italian hill-town than craggy Lammermuir.)

In the second act, there's a brilliant sextet in which the principle characters express their individual perspectives on the action (joy, despair, trepidation, excitement, etc.) in what's become an operatic cliché, but here it's staged with such musical conviction that you realize "Aha! This is where those silly parodies (Bugs Bunny, Three Stooges), originate! Now they make sense!"

Then, in the third act, comes the hair-curling mad scene, which could be nothing but coloratura flash. With the right performers (Maria Callas, Dame Joan Sutherland), it becomes a gut-wrenching tour de force. (The opening night performance was dedicated to Sutherland's memory.) Kurzak is technically perfect and emotionally convincing.

The Seattle Opera chorus periodically fills Robert Dahlstrom's multi-tiered set with lavish costumes (by Deborah Trout) and rousing voices (prepared by Beth Kirchhoff). In the pit, the Neapolitan conductor Bruno Cinquegrani, a Donizetti specialist, leads the orchestra with assurance and verve.

It's one of a number of times now that McCaw Hall audiences have heard Burden: including shipwrecked in Iphigenia in Tauris, shirtless in Pearl Fishers, in dress whites as Amelia's father, and now as a love-struck Scotsman. He becomes more assured and musically confident with each appearance. If he kept his mind on his mission (avenging his family, murdered by Lucia's older brother) there'd be no opera. If Lucia refused hers (to marry her brother's benefactor), there'd be no opera. Instead, Lucia kills her husband, goes mad, and kills herself. Burden has the unenviable task of following one of the most famous scenes in opera with an anguished aria of his own; he pulls it off with aplomb.

Kurzak, an immensely talented and accomplished lyric soprano whose roles to date have stopped just short of madness, sings her first Lucia. She's entirely credible as a teenage Lucia (clowning around a fountain) who quickly gets in over her head as a pawn in the story's medieval Scottish politics. She lands the thrilling high notes but she's almost too cute for her hysteria to be absorbed as tragedy. Genuine madness, you think, requires greater maturity, greater sense of loss than Twitter-style teenage poutiness:

Act One: @LuciaLamm Edgardo the coolest, love forever, but bro disapproves
Act Two: @LuciaLamm Marry to save famiily, WTF? Arturo better not eff w me
Act Three: @LuciaLamm OMG stabbed Arturo blood everywhere. Losing it

And yet, and yet. What makes Lucia such a pleasure is the seamless collaboration of international talents (Polish, Croatian, Italian, Israeli, Spanish, to name just the foreign-born artists) in the service of music written close to 200 years ago, music that gives a depth of meaning to a timeless story, performed by singers who give it emotional depth.

Sopranos (and the occasional mezzo) go mad with frightening regularity in opera; on this same stage we've heard Elvira in I Puritani, the title character in Amelia, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth (more histrionics), and Azucena in Il Trovatore.

So when Kurzak's Lucia descends the staircase of Dahlstrom's Piranesi-inspired set clutching the bloody veil of her wedding gown, she's no longer a little girl overwhelmed by family politics, she's no longer a "canary," but a woman with spectacular vocal gifts. Her madness, transcending demented confusion, becomes an expression of victory, of moral clarity.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Oct 19, 3:31 a.m. Inappropriate

We were there for opening night and were just overwhelmed. Unquestionably the most wonderful experience we've ever had in an opera house anywhere. Mr. Holden's superlatives are all warranted, and then some. The voices were perfect and all heard easily up in our cheap seats. This is Aleksandra's first Lucia but she sounds like she's been singing it her whole life. Many soprano's have a slightly "screechy" edge on their loud high notes, but her sound is pure cream all the way up and down.

If you've ever thought about going to the opera, this is the time to do it! It's a great beginner's opera, easy to follow the story (English translation slides shown overhead), and of course musically perfect, and visually satisfying. We were there for opening night, and we are going again on closing night. This is one opera you can't get too much of.

Posted Sun, Oct 24, 3:59 p.m. Inappropriate

Another stunning evening at Seattle Opera on Saturday, October 23. Aleksandra Kurzak sang exquisitely all evening with great technique and was a dramatically compelling Lucia. She will no doubt become a great diva. William Burden in the role of Edgardo was a revelation, proving himself to be a first rate Donizetti singer and I certainly hope to hear more of him in tenor roles by that composer. Bass, Arthur Woodley cast as Raimondo, was perfection and to hear him sing that role alone was worth the price of admission; he just gets better and better. The production, sets, costumes, etc all served the opera most adequately but very little stood out with the exception of Lucia's multi-layered red ruffled skirt in Act Two which looked recycled from La Traviata and out of place. Mr. Holden's assertion that "in 1835 Donizetti was the king of Italian opera composers" is not accurate. He had stiff competion from Bellini (who died only three days before the premier of "Lucia di Lammermoor") as well as from Mercadante, Pacini and others. In this period it was Bellini who felt himself the inheritor of Rossini's mantle as "king of Italian composers". By 1839 Donizetti would in fact hold the "most influential" status. Two more of his operas will be performed here in the NW...."L' elisir d'amore" in Tacoma and "Viva La Mama" (it's new name; originally "Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali") in Bellevue with Seattle Opera's Young Singers Program. If you have a chance to experience the beautiful Lucia currently at Seattle Opera don't miss it!!

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