As the famous heroine of Lucia di Lammermoor hurtled toward her late-in-the-evening mad scene, she actually had nowhere to go but up at the Opera Philadelphia opening night Friday. That's the exact reverse of what usually happens in this unorthodox but troubled centerpiece of Festival O18.
The talent lined up for Donizetti's character study in female repression (in which committing murder on her wedding night is the ultimate pressure valve) seemed like a no-lose combination. Yet director Laurent Pelly, conductor Corrado Rovaris, and soprano Brenda Rae delivered such a collision of ideas — and such an extreme execution of them — you almost wanted to leave at intermission.
Well, O18 is supposed to take chances, and this one was on a large scale. My suggestion is to not heed any departure impulses: As the final act progressed, the theatrical conception became respectably clear, even though better ways of projecting are needed before the production moves on to the Vienna State Opera next year.
Director Pelly has said the opera isn't a love story but a 19th-century power struggle with Lucia forced into a marriage to save the family fortune, even though she has promised herself to another, pushing this fragile young maiden to the breaking point. Here, she's all but broken from the beginning — nervous, withdrawn, and so lacking in composure, you wanted her to have anti-convulsion medication, not more high notes. As it turns out, murder and madness are her liberation.
But who wants to spend so much time watching such a charisma-impaired heroine? Particularly since Lucia's repressed moments came with a limited palette of vocal color? Finally in the mad scene, Rae's voice burst forth in all of its technically accurate and theatrically adept glory, reminding you she is among the finest Lucias out there. But that's a long time to wait, even with the mad scene's use of creepy but infrequently heard "glass harmonica" that the composer originally intended. And the journey to get there veered between arresting and underwhelming.
Black and blood-red sets designed by Chantal Thomas were commandingly gothic with jagged imagery suggesting Scottish castle ruins. A stately mansion in the background often loomed like a hallucinatory symbol of the declining family around Lucia. But interior scenes seem to take place in a glass house that didn't look like much. Crowd scenes were directed in ominous slow-ish motion like something out of an enigmatic French symbolist painting.
Conductor Rovaris brought his typical authority to Donizetti, finding considerable meaning in music that others might dismiss as trivial. But you wondered if the singers were holding themselves back when alongside this often-muted portrayal of Lucia. Most of the notes were there — a triumph in the florid pages of bel canto opera. With his superb upper range, tenor Michael Spyres (Edgardo, Lucia's lover) rose to the emotional occasions of the final act. But my guess is that later performances will be more consistently compelling. As much as I've admired baritone Troy Cook, his solidly sung portrayal of Lucia's cruel brother, Enrico, lacked killer instinct. In such company, the arrival of Christian Van Horn's imposing, articulate, sonorous Raimondo was like a welcome slap upside the head. Who is this guy? Answer: No less than the 2018 winner of the Richard Tucker Award. Look for him in the Metropolitan Opera's Mefistofele in November.