Moving into the Center for the Arts at George Mason University on April 7 and 8 will be composer Gaetano Donizetti’s classic dramma tragico, Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), this after having premiered in Norfolk on March 23, 25, and 27 and before traveling to Richmond for an April 13 and 15 wrap up to Virginia Opera’s current season. The libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, based on the “Bride of Lammermoor” (1819) by Sir Walter Scott, is timeless in portraying the unraveling under stress of a vulnerable personality; the music by Donizetti is stunning. The story takes place in 17th century Scotland, a time of wars and religious conflicts, often setting families against families in lethal feuds. Historical novels about that period were popular in Europe of the 19th century. Lucia is a young woman who falls in love with Edgardo, the remaining head of a rival family in conflict with her own family, but she is then manipulated by her brother Enrico to save him from peril by agreeing to marry Arturo from a different family. Each of the major characters is compelled to act by dire circumstances and their own natures, honorable or not. Lucia becomes more and more isolated and pressured until she becomes undone. Lucia is one of opera’s great tragedies and perhaps its most effective at pulling audiences into the drama. It also contains the most famous mad scene in opera; with a role coveted by coloratura sopranos; the story’s impact is dependent on the soprano’s performance in that scene.
left: Joseph Dennis as Edgardo and Rachele Gilmore as Lucia. right: Tim Mix as Enrico and Rachele Gilmore as Lucia. Photos by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.
When I first saw that this opera was on the schedule for 2017-2018, I was uncertain if I wanted to see it again. But in truth, I have only seen one previous version of Lucia and that was a video of a Metropolitan Opera production from 2011 starring the fabulous Natalie Dessay as Lucia. Even watching it as a video on television, the opera was deeply affecting and such a satisfying gem I have not felt the desire to see another performance. But then I saw that Rachele Gilmore is playing Lucia, and I read about her coloratura soprano voice and the opportunity to see her version of the famous mad scene caused the opera to grow in appeal. Finally, one of my daughters asked me to consider writing about opera costumes and staging, and the Virginia Opera’s Lucia seems an excellent candidate for such an effort with 17th century costumes and staging by director and choreographer, Kyle Lang; he previously directed 2015’s La Boheme for VA Opera and choreographed 2017’s Turandot.
I chatted with Director Lang by phone to learn more about how this production came to be. The conductor of an opera has primary responsibility for what you hear, but the director has primary responsibility for what you see. He explained that generating costumes and sets for an entirely new production of an opera is very expensive, and today, most operas are performed using rental costumes and sets from previous productions. Finding rental sets for Lucia that fit with the dimensions of the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk appeared problematic, so he made the decision to begin with costumes and re-purpose existing VA Opera sets as needed. He was aware of a 2005 Glimmerglass Festival production of Lucie de Lammermoor, Donizetti’s Paris revision of Lucia, that had been staged by his mentor Director Lillian Groag, who is herself quite familiar to VA Opera audiences (Turandot and Girl of the Golden West). He knew that the costumes for that production had been prepared by award winning designer, Catherine Zuber and were historically accurate. Ms. Zuber has been nominated for twelve Tony awards and has won six times. The Groag production was meant to be a period piece; costumes help the singer/actors assume the character. The costumes were designed in the cavalier style of the 17th century. Think silks, taffetas, brocades, and velvet, sashes and doublets for the men and double skirts for the women; think romantic. Ms. Zuber’s costumes for the Glimmerglass production also use color patterns to support the drama in a more subliminal fashion.
There were Lucie/Lucia differences. The character of Alisa, Lucia’s royal attendant, was absent from Lucie, so Mr. Lang and VA Opera costume manager Pat Seyller were tasked with creating a costume for that character. Also, a character in Lucie, missing in Lucia, allowed a costume switch for Normanno in Lucia. However, Director Lang chose not to use the abstract version of blood in the Groag production. He prefers the real thing, or at least the stage version of the real thing. So, the red lace and rose petals of Glimmerglass mad scene dress have become the wet, blood stained Lang version. This required creating a copy of the rented costume that was then permanently stained iteratively with blood and Ms. Gilmore gets an extra splashing before her appearance each night; this requires washing the blood out of the dress after every performance. Director Lang believes the blood is critical to achieving full dramatic impact of this scene. All very tastefully done, of course.
Mr. Lang’s goal is to use every aspect of the production to bring the story of Lucia di Lammermoor to life. Re-purposed sets and props from Virginia Opera’s stock were designed to create the appropriate world for each scene, but created to be minimalist in the sense that none of the elements is padding, but rather plays a significant role in telling the story; he created special film clips to introduce each scene. I wondered if hauling the sets from venue to venue might be a problem, but Mr. Lang indicated that getting the floor moved and reinstalled was a bit of a challenge but packing up and moving did not present too many challenges.
A much greater challenge resulted from the inherent difficulty in staging bel canto operas. Lucia is iconic for bel canto opera, especially coloratura singing. Director Lang opines, “Bel Canto is characterized by long, sustained vocal lines to show the virtuosity of the voice, which means one could be singing about one emotion or thought for an extended period of time, and you can basically be pulled out of real time within the music. This is difficult dramaturgically because one needs to keep the story moving forward. Long passages and repeats can often make it difficult for action/conflict/resolution to continue at an ample pace.” This necessitates a middle ground in staging where the director and conductor, in this case Maestro Ari Pelto, must work closely together, including making sure that staging allows the arias to be both sung and heard, getting the tempo of the music and movement on stage in step, and assessing what the dramatic intent of the music requires of the acting. Director Lang examines every line since movement on stage is dictated by the text. For Lucia, Acts I and II are different in flow: Act I – exposition setting up our knowledge of the characters and conflicts; Act II – the events unfold. Director Lang’s background in addition to directing is dancing; so, he knows how to keep movements flowing. His background also helps in staging movements for the chorus members, an important part of Lucia.
I asked Mr. Lang what he hoped the audience would take away from his Lucia di Lammermoor. He believes people will remember the beautiful singing. He says this production has a cast of outstanding singers who produce the vocal fireworks that Donizetti intended. He also thinks that the audience will find that their emotional connection to Lucia is stronger than for most other operas, that they may find that they identify with the characters more than in other operas, and that this will help them put their own lives in greater perspective. But, a director’s work is never done, at least if he wants to earn a living. Mr. Lang is already working on his next production – directing Johann Strauss’ comedic opera, Die Fledermaus for Utah Opera, a very different opera temperament from Lucia.
One of the things I read when my love of opera first materialized was that opera was plural for the Latin word opus, which means work; so, opera was ‘the works’; it included music, singing, storytelling, acting, dancing, costumes, and lighting. Yet thus far my attention has been focused mainly on the singing and the music, with occasional nods to the other aspects, but my awareness and appreciation of ‘the works’ is growing. The next time you are reviewing your program just prior to the conductor’s entrance to the pit and after you’ve looked over the list of singers, take a look at the other names, those of the director, the chorus leader, the lighting manager, the costume designer, and sets designer. You will start to find favorites among those contributors as well. It is ‘the works’ of all of those individuals that integrate to provide the art that will engage you, entertain you and move you, offering a connection for the moment with all humanity and putting you more in touch with your own. Looked at that way, the price of a ticket is very good value indeed.
The Fan Experience: Remaining performances for Lucia are April 7 and 8 in Fairfax (April 8 will be the 170th anniversary of Donizetti’s death) and April 13 and 15 in Richmond. Tickets can be purchased through this link. To enhance your understanding and appreciation for Lucia, I recommend the series of blog posts written by Dr. Glenn Winters, opera composer and Community Outreach Musical Director for Virginia Opera. Dr. Winters also presents the pre-opera talk given prior to each performance; get there early if you want to get a seat.