THE MOST POPULAR pre-Verdi operatic tragedy, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor has been beloved since its 1835 premiere for its fine balance of vocal thrills and taut drama—a balance not achieved all that often in the Italian bel canto era, when catchy tunes took priority. The story's taken from a Sir Walter Scott novel, one of his romantic Highland tales: With the fortunes of the Ashton family, financial and political, in decline, Enrico insists that his sister Lucia marry Arturo the tenor, though she's already in love with another tenor, Edgardo. Things don't work out, of course—Lucia goes mad and kills Arturo, Edgardo kills himself in despair, and the nasty Enrico gets off scot-free (pun intended).
Lucia di Lammermoor
Seattle Center, Opera House November 4
For Seattle Opera's sixth staging of Lucia, they've offered Harolyn Blackwell her first shot at the title role. Known for lighter fare, she's made a splash here in past seasons as Lakm頡nd Rigoletto's Gilda. Her Act I aria, "Regnava nel silenzio," boded well vocally and dramatically for her Act III "Mad Scene," one of the most famous, and challenging, soprano moments in opera. She sang "Regnava" with a lovely ease that gave tantalizing hints of vocal depths kept in reserve—as you listened you knew she'd be able to brighten or darken, lighten or increase the weight of her voice as needed. Dramatically, Blackwell was absorbing to watch—a bit jittery, a bit distracted, and, when she sang about Edgardo, utterly rapt in her romantic fantasies in a way that suggested Lucia wasn't all that stable upstairs to begin with.
In Act II, Blackwell drew on those reserves; she turned up the intensity a couple of notches for anger and drained the color from her voice to express sorrow. Yet the "Mad Scene" itself was a step backward, with very little that was chilling or gripping about her voice or manner. Her portrayal was, as a friend put it, "way too polite." As a vocal showpiece, the scene was dazzling, a brilliant display of beauty, agility, and accuracy, all thoroughly enjoyable. But was it moving, powerful, theatrically effective? Well . . . it came off as a divertissement instead, the vocal equivalent of the pretty but superfluous ballet interludes popularized in 19th-century opera. When it was done, you half expected the supertitle screen to flash "And now, back to our story. . . ."
TO EDGARDO, Paul Charles Clarke brought one of the clearest and brightest tenor voices I've ever heard at Seattle Opera, with a flexible command of all the expressive, Italianate sobs one could desire. He was an excellent match for Blackwell; they sounded ravishing together, especially in their Act I love duet, and they shared a real chemistry. Gordon Hawkins' baritone was warm and a bit gruff, a great villain voice for Enrico. Another striking male voice in the cast was Raymond Aceto's, who sang boldly and imposingly as the stern tutor Raimondo.
Just as this Lucia was a mix of several dramatic moments that worked magnificently and a few that, surprisingly, didn't quite come off, so too was the production design somewhat unfocused—abstract and stylized in some scenes (the craggy monoliths that loomed over the Act I garden scene) and naturalistic in others (the great hall of the Ashton castle). But Edie Whitsett's sets and Claire Hewitt's costumes were always handsome, most notably a huge, blood-red battle-scene tapestry for Enrico's chambers and the deep greens and burgundies, accessorized with tartans, that the chorus wore. The Seattle Opera chorus and orchestra (a.k.a. the Seattle Symphony), led by Edoardo Mller, performed up to their usual standards of excellence.