Monday, June 30, 2008

It's All about the Diva

I had a music professor who used to like to say, "There are those who like music and those who like opera." It should be clear from many of my past posts that I disagree with him. Yesterday, however, after seeing the San Francisco Opera production of Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (having seen the opera itself only once before on a Metropolitan Opera telecast), I have to wonder if my professor had intended his assertion to apply only to bel canto opera. It is hard to imagine this work as anything more than a three-hour framework for one spectacular mad scene aria. It certainly does not honor Walter Scott (in either music or text) the with creative understanding that Giuseppe Verdi and Arrigo Boito brought to William Shakespeare in their adaptation of Othello; and, having had a few opportunities to hear the composer's chamber music, I would say that Lucia does not even provide Donizetti with much of a platform for his compositional skills. Indeed, I might be so bold as to observe that the high point of his creativity came with the decision to have a glass harmonica accompany Lucia's mad scene, which provided for a truly eerie depiction of her unhinged state.

Even this decision has problems, however. The glass harmonica yields an effective sound, but it is also physically unwieldy. Thus, it works best as a solo instrument. (Mozart's one effort to put it in a chamber music setting was an Adagio, for good reason!) Getting such an instrument to track coloratura passages is a high-wire act for both parties. Thus, if yesterday's performance was about little more than not falling from the wire, I am happy to report that Natalie Dessay delivered the aria with all the intensity it demands; and Alexander Marguerre had all the necessary command of his glass harmonica to give her the supporting accompaniment she deserved.

Is there anything more that can be said? Interestingly, Joseph Kerman, in his Opera as Drama book, pretty much ignores Lucia's mad scene but singles out the concluding scene, in the Ravenswood cemetery, as a high-point of pre-Verdi operatic drama. Musically, Donizetti seemed to find his best sounds and thematic conceptions when he brought together the voices of Enrico Ashton (baritone) and Edgardo (tenor). However, in spite of the fact that what drama there is revolves around the antagonism between these two men, this happens seldom; and one of those times is when they introduce the second act sextet, which as Daniel Mendelsohn pointed out when he reviewed the Metropolitan Opera production for The New York Review of Books, is only a sextet through the gratuitous presence of Alisa (whose voice I never really heard).

So, do a few isolated moments of inspiration justify a full commitment to a three-hour performance? My guess is that much of the audience was there to hear Dessay, and they were more than satisfied with that experience. Mendelsohn makes a strong case that there is far more to what Donizetti and his librettist Salavadore Cammarano put into this opera than I seem to have gotten out of it. On the other hand, after building up an argument for all of the substance in this opera, he proceeded to explain why Mary Zimmerman (who directed the Met production) did not "get it." So it is possible that Graham Vick, who originally staged the San Francisco production for the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence also did not "get it." However, when we consider how much dramatic significance Vick was able to extract from a single tree in his staging of Tannhäuser earlier this season, I have to wonder if the cardboard characters and melodramatic histrionics of Lucia were a rebellion against the injustices to Scott wreaked by Cammarano.

A more generous explanation may have been that Lucia was just in the wrong company. Both George Frideric Handel and Richard Wagner knew how to explore depths of the human heart through the logic, grammar, and rhetoric of their compositional skills. Donizetti was just not the same sort of player in that kind of league. He had the talent to entertain but not to reflect. Had Lucia been placed in a repertoire between the legacy of Gioacchino Rossini and the innovations of Verdi, I might have received it with more understanding and appreciation.

No comments: