Lucia Di Lammermoor Mad Scene Natalie Dessay Bach

Notes and Editorial Reviews

This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.

DONIZETTI Lucia di Lammermoor • Valery Gergiev, cond; Natalie Dessay (Lucia); Piotr Beczala (Edgardo); Vladislav Sulimsky (Enrico); Mariinsky Th O & Ch •Read more MARIINSKY MAR0512 (2 SACDs: 130:05 Text and Translation)

There is a great deal to admire in this new Lucia. Natalie Dessay is one of the foremost interpreters of the title role today. She has already recorded the opera in its French version (reviewed by both George Jellinek and Bob Rose in Fanfare 26: 5), and sung it in the world’s leading opera houses, so it is logical for her to record the standard version. And there is no question that she is up to the demands of the role. There is a strong vibrato on sustained notes that is emphasized by the recording process (I doubt it would be as troublesome in the opera house, where the listener is much farther away from the voice than the microphone), and I do find that disturbing. Set against that is her agility (ornamenting all repeat verses with appropriate flair and imagination), her ability to inflect phrases in a way that is musically natural, and the basic attractiveness of her bright, focused, but never hard-edged timbre.

As much as I enjoyed her Lucia, for the collector the issue is how it stands up to competitive alternatives, and I’m not sure that the answer is in Dessay’s favor. There is an old maxim about not letting the great become the enemy of the good-enough. However, in art, that is not applicable, particularly if the great is within reach. Artists hate being compared to their predecessors. They naturally want to be taken on their own merits—and in the opera house during a performance, that is appropriate and right. But unless I’m willing to spend limitless amounts of money collecting Lucia recordings (and my wife would argue that, in fact, I am), it comes down to this: Does Dessay offer something to add to a picture of this role already drawn by Callas, Sills, and Sutherland? For me, the answer is no.

Reviewing this recording led me to reappraise the Sills and Sutherland sets (I know Callas’s well). Each of those ladies brought something highly personal and unique to the role. You might argue that Sutherland’s lack of dramatic specificity and limited palette of colors is a defect, and I suppose it is, but no one actually sings the role better. Her rich, plush voice paired with astonishing flexibility and control is a once-in-a-lifetime combination, and her partners (Pavarotti, Milnes, and Ghiaurov) make this a memorable studio recording—and it is uncut as well. Additionally, while Sutherland certainly did not have the dramatic imagination of Sills, Scotto, or Callas, she did make a more serious attempt at characterization than she is often given credit for. And to hear a voice of that amplitude in this music is virtually without precedent, in particular notes above high C with the fullness of tone that Sutherland produces. Callas is, of course, sui generis, coloring and inflecting the role as no other singer has. I like her first EMI studio recording with Serafin and the 1955 Karajan-led Scala performance in Berlin; in both cases, di Stefano is another huge asset. Scotto’s best work is found in a number of live performance recordings, one with di Stefano (on Myto) and one with Pavarotti (Opera d’Oro). Sills’s recording, originally made for Westminster and reissued first by DG and now by Universal Editions, with the glorious Edgardo of Bergonzi, brilliantly led by Schippers, is another important set. Cappuccilli adds value, and it too is uncut. Sills and Scotto both found ways to manage to combine the sheer pleasure of vocal display with dramatically meaningful and insightful portrayals. Listening again to Sills, one is first impressed by the variety of color she does apply to the voice to reflect the dramatic moment. It is not as rich a range, nor as thorough, as Callas, but it is quite effective and specific. Then there is the technique—a perfect trill, astonishing passagework, and the wonderful ornamentation written for her by Roland Gagnon. Add to that Sills’s remarkable diction, far more clearly enunciated than Dessay (let alone Sutherland). I found myself falling in love with her recording all over again. When one speaks of “the Sills Lucia,” “the Callas Lucia,” or “the Sutherland Lucia,” a knowledgeable and experienced listener will immediately get a picture of the performance. I don’t feel that is the case with Dessay; one will get a generalized picture of a well-sung performance, but not of a role brought vividly to life in an individual portrayal that will remain in the memory. There is a sense that the vocal gestures are applied from the outside, rather than being deeply felt in the gut. There is a monochromatic aspect to her performance that becomes more evident on repeated hearing.

I wonder if the problem is less Dessay than the overall atmosphere of this recording, which I would describe as highly accomplished but rarely causing a thrill. A colleague of mine once said, after a very competently conducted symphonic concert, “My feet never left the ground,” and that would be my reaction here. Gergiev does not infuse the score with too much Russian weight; things move along at a reasonable clip and phrases are well shaped. But the rhythmic pulse is often slack, the line sags in places, and the whole thing has about it the feel of too much care and not enough abandon. This feeling is everywhere, and is evident from the opening chorus, which doesn’t have the swing or thrust inherent in the music. Beczala’s curse of Lucia after being shown her signed marriage contract sounds like a moderately annoyed scolding rather than a cry of pain from the gut. The Wolf’s Crag scene, thankfully included here, doesn’t ignite the sparks of anger that it should. What is missing throughout the entire opera is the smell of the theater—the sense of fire and momentum that a truly involving performance manages to convey. Even the best studio recordings do manage that (Sills/Bergonzi/Schippers is a fine example). There is nothing fussy or wrong-headed about the conducting, but it seems to me too controlled, or perhaps controlling. I wanted to like it more than I did, because of my admiration for Gergiev’s work in such a wide range of music, and because of the smart editorial decisions here (opening all cuts, using the glass harmonica in the mad scene).

It is easy to focus on the soprano in this opera, but in fact Donizetti did not, at least not when all the traditional cuts are opened and we hear his whole work. (Many of the cuts that started coming into practice even in his time were made at the insistence of sopranos who wished to aggrandize themselves, and the result was the elimination of much of the music for the men.) It is important to remember that, unlike most bel canto operas, the soprano’s mad scene is not the opera’s finale. The final scene is given over to the tenor in a huge double aria. I was fortunate enough to attend Joan Sutherland’s Met debut, and as you might imagine, the ovation after the mad scene was a good 10 minutes (even including one wag who, as the applause was finally dying down, shouted “bravo flutist,” igniting another minute or two of enthusiastic outburst). Richard Tucker was the Edgardo—and he was not going to play second fiddle to Sutherland. He sang the final scene as if his life depended on it, and managed almost as long an ovation. The fact is that the role of Edgardo is central to a performance of Lucia, and for me the much-praised Beczala just doesn’t have the vocal goods. He sings very well, shapes the music nicely, and has all the notes and even the style. But the timbre is wrong, lacking a liquid quality; the legato is not a genuine Italianate legato (and one doesn’t have to be Italian to have that down; Bjoerling would be a prime example); and he refuses to let loose when Edgardo must. The collector has the options of di Stefano, Bergonzi, Pavarotti, Carreras, Kraus, and Domingo. It may seem unfair to compare Beczala to these stars of a bygone era, but there they are, a fact of life for the collector and for anyone who would record the role today. As with the ladies referred to above, each of these tenors makes something special of the role of Edgardo.

Vladislav Sulimsky is a rather rough-voiced Enrico, lacking the richness of vocal texture one hears from Milnes or Cappuccilli, or the snarling nastiness and elegance of a Gobbi. The Arturo and Raimondo are actually a bit unpleasant on the ear; the Normanno is adequate. The chorus sings with all the glory we associate with great Russian choruses, and frankly it sounds a bit more idiomatic and into the score than many of the other participants. The orchestral playing is a bit rough-edged at times, but overall fine. This is not a live performance recording, and was recorded in the Mariinsky concert hall, not the opera house. The sonic results, as heard in two-channel stereo, are excellent. The voices have a natural perspective about them, and the voice-orchestra balance is perfect. An illuminating essay by Jeremy Commons enhances the production.

So there you have it—a new Lucia that I find easier to admire than to love. In Fanfare 34:4, Bob Rose reviewed the Naxos reissue of a 2007 Dynamic set. It is clear that if Bob Rose and I were stranded on a desert island, we’d have very little to argue about. His recommendations for Lucia recordings? Sutherland/Pavarotti; Sills/Bergonzi; Callas/di Stefano/Karajan! Same as mine.

FANFARE: Henry Fogel
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Lucia di Lammermoorby Gaetano Donizetti
Performer:  Zhanna Dombrovskaya (Soprano), Dmitry Voropaev (Tenor), Ilya Bannik (Bass),
Natalie Dessay (Soprano), Vladislav Sulimsky (Baritone), Piotr Beczala (Tenor),
Sergei Skorokhodov (Tenor)
Conductor:  Valery Gergiev
Orchestra/Ensemble:  St. Petersburg Mariinsky Theater Orchestra,  St. Petersburg Mariinsky Theater Chorus
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1835; Italy 
Date of Recording: 09/2010 
Venue:  Mariinsky Concert Hall, St. Petersburg,  

"It was a dark and stormy night …." Chuckling whenever I hear these lines, I can see Charles Schultz’s beloved Snoopy staring intensely at his typewriter, vigorously typing away what he would consider his magnum opus novel. Not surprisingly, in countless titanic masterworks of literature and music, the foreboding stormy night setting serves as a metaphor and eloquent dropback for a stormy situation within the drama of the story. Such is the case with Gaetano Donzietti’s epic magnum opus, Lucia di Lammermoor. Set in the mysterious and misty moors of post-Reformation Scotland, this tangled tale – loosely based upon a historical fiction novel by Sir Walter Scott of Ivanhoe fame – revolves around a Romeo and Juliet-like situation in which a young man and woman from feuding families fall in love with tragic results. This past Saturday at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Donzietti’s long-neglected operatic masterpiece now turned repertoire staple was given a fresh facelift which charmed yet never totally wowed me according to my initial expectations.

In this production of Donzietti’s famed and initially-neglected classic, diva turned directress Catherine Malfitano tastefully contemporized this production while maintaining subtle reminders of its historical setting. While the story takes place in the 16th century, this production shifted it 200 years later to the Victorian Era, thus more potently reinforcing the opera’s core message that arranged and forced marriages – often for prestige – rule as priority over a young lady’s sincere desires and best interests. Still, obvious reminders of post-Reformation Scotland lingered, most notably the highly effective, transparent reprint of a 16th-century map of Scotland which served as the production’s curtain between acts. Hence, past and present were tastefully blended with a not-so-confusing result. The sets were highly minimalistic, preferring to rely on lighting effects rather than extravagant backgrounds and props. While I found this ingenious, a more traditional and detailed set would have aesthetically and rhetorically suited this classic opera better. For example, the accursed fountain which from which petrified Lucia receives the ghostly apparition is totally absent from the set – a major glitch that left my mind somewhat bewildered.

In a similar light, the vocally strong cast enchanted me yet often left me hungering for more character development and depth. Unfortunately, Phillips’ Lucia failed to epically capture the psychological depth of this tragic heroine and her demise. From the start, Phillips exemplified a childlike innocence. I found this touching and appropriate during the first half of the first act, but as the opera progressed into more tragic realms, Phillips failed to fully showcase a traumatized and tormented individual, exploited by her brother’s evil spirit and selfishness. The absence of Lucia’s torment became most obvious during the famed mad scene. Phillips’ Lucia, again maintaining her childlike innocence, appeared more in a state of peaceful ecstasy rather than the extreme madness which has consumed her both vocally and physically. Rather than writhing on the floor, violently lashing out at others, and flashing crazed eyes in the spirit of such great giants as Natalie Dessay, Phillips preferred to remain predominantly stationary, gazing heavenward and affectionately embracing every surrounding object. Similarly, Giuseppe Filianoti as Edgardo beautifully lent his lightly rich tenor voice to the role, but both his voice and body language did not fully demonstrate extreme infatuation and pain at his beloved’s “betrayal.” On the plus side, baritone Brian Mulligan as the evil Enrico proved a formidable and eventually repentant villain complete with his oily and plotting facial grimaces, while Christian van Horne lent a truly gentle and understanding Christian spirit to the role of Raimondo the family minister – who understands the theological meaning of marriage yet secretly sides with Lucia in her agony.

Despite the pitfalls, this Lyric production of Lucia is worthwhile fare for those outside veteran opera-goers. While those deeply familiar with the groundbreaking performances of such giants as Natalie Dessay and Maria Callas will undoubtedly experience major disappointment, audiences outside of this crowd are guaranteed musical and visual delight. Those interested in fine singing and its pedagogy will find delight and technical inspiration in Phillips’ Lucia, while the tamer, more “G-rated” presentation of her character will lend itself better to younger audiences and those new to the wonderful world of opera. In the same light, those interested in contemporary theater and lighting will find this Lyric production most stimulating and ground-breaking in terms of set ingenuity. Finally, with Halloween less than a week away, this eerily thrilling opera – ghosts, omens, murder, and psychological madness included – lends itself perfectly towards fine, non-graphic but satisfyingly chilling holiday fare. So, whether you are a newcomer to opera, a diehard Romeo and Juliet fan seeking a fresh variation on the tale, or a thriller movie fan seeking to trace the history of the modern thriller, head out to the Lyric to experience the thrills and chills of Donzietti’s hallowed masterpiece.

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