Review: LA Opera centers a Donizetti heroine in a troubled United States

Opera theater

Agency is the necessary word that always comes up with “Lucia di Lammermoor”, which opened the new season of the Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday evening. This time in a surprising new production updated for the current, now disenfranchised Rust Belt America.

There has never been any doubt as to whose side we are in the nearly two centuries since Donizetti’s most popular opera, written in 1835, has been consistently on the opera stage. Forced into a loveless political marriage, Lucia simply kills her unwanted fiancé on their nuptial bed and goes insane.

It is of course not simple at all. Should madness be the agency’s excuse? Do we pity Lucia because, well, she’s a dreamy, vulnerable woman and she has one of the most deliciously transporting crazy scenes in an art form that has made a crazy scene production industry for women ? Does the agency simply sing like a bird, with mind-blowing coloratura?

Obviously not. The greatest Lucia ever recorded is Maria Callas, who was not a freak of nature but a force of nature. The most persuasive and brilliantly sung performance of “Lucia” I’ve ever seen is from Beverly Sills. The great American soprano made it clear that she was sane, a pawn in an ailing patriarchal society. His crazy scene turned out to be 15 minutes of transcendent lucidity, an illumination of the world as it should be.

In Simon Stone’s new production – a co-production between LA Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, which premiered in May – oxycodone addict Lucia shares a home with her older brother, Enrico. She is saved from an attempted rape by a guy who works at the local convenience store and is the enemy of her brother, Edgardo. They instantly fall in love.

It’s an ugly, decaying little town full of angry people. They don’t look exactly like the Jan 6 Rioters, but they get angry easily enough for you to understand. Cars and vans are old (when was the last time you saw a Pinto?). The pawn shop is open 24/7.

Although Netflix describes ‘The Dig’, the feature film Stone directed last year for the site, as ‘simple’, the Australian director who lives in Vienna is anything but that in opera. It exposes the toxic undersides of modern society, whether it’s Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” or Kaija Saariaho’s outstanding last opera, “Innocence,” about a mass school shooting.

Lucia update does not always work. The parallels between the mores of the nineteenth century and those of our era are hardly exact. The last half-century of feminism has sparked considerable thought and reflection on the interpretations and implications of “Lucia”. Many productions over the past three decades have been directed by women, including a particularly effective one by Katie Mitchell at the Royal Opera that is now on video.

Two previous LA Opera productions were by German actress Marthe Keller and most recently, in 2014, by Elkhanah Pulitzer, the director of John Adams’ new opera “Antony and Cleopatra” in San Francisco. Martin Bernheimer dubbed the company’s first “Lucia” in 1993, led by Andrei Serban on a vacant lot of concrete slabs, “Our Lady of the Petrified Dunghill.”

We have come a long way. But not all the way. The quirky, depressing Scottish setting of the opera, where Lucia is forced to marry for financial and political reasons, seems almost good compared to what Stone offers. In the 19th century, Lucia had no options for agency. In this new production, we wonder why she lets her brother force her hand. Why don’t she and Edgardo jump in his pickup and take off? Why? Because she is on oxycodone, he leaves to join the army and Enrico shows him doctored photos on social networks of an unfaithful Edgardo.

It then becomes a “Lucia” destined not for pity but for indignation. Rather than lamenting the mores of the British Empire centuries ago, Stone shows a troubled picture of America just as the UK looks momentarily admirable, collective in its mourning for the death of Queen Elizabeth II. .

Yet it is a gripping production, the most theatrical that the Los Angeles Opera has mounted in some time, and also with the most excellent cast, the excellence being in both singing and acting. actor.

The action takes place on a rotating set, continually changing perspective. A video screen above Lizzie Clachan’s realistic set reveals live shots of the singers, sometimes close-ups on stage, sometimes in rooms or locations not seen on stage.

Stone is easily satisfied with his visual imagination. A decrepit drive-in theater screens a dark 1947 parody, “My Favorite Brunette,” for seemingly no other reason, perhaps, than Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour are locked up in a sanatorium. At worst, the disconnect between the old libretto and the update (the translations on the projected titles are also updated to better conform to the production) had audiences laughing in all the wrong places.

The singers need a strong presence throughout the piece to take on their own agency when it comes to the audience’s divided attentions. All but one of the actors are LA Opera veterans and/or alumni of its Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artists program. All but one of the singers are American. What’s new is that Saturday marked the first performance of Lina González-Granados in her new role as LA Opera’s resident conductor, and the first performance of the LA Opera Chorus under its new director. , Jeremy Frank.

Amanda Woodbury is a hardened Lucia with a soft, full and radiant voice. She does very little to show Donizetti’s coloratura, but rather everything flows from her as if effortlessly. She sings her crazy scene, filled with the otherworldly glass harmonica rather than the more usual flute, in what seems like a narcotic haze rather than madness. It offers a striking cadence, but more studied than instinctive.

The scene’s impact, however, is further mitigated by showing what’s going on in her mind on pre-recorded video. As Lucia walks around in her blood-soaked white wedding dress like someone out of a horror movie, we see her happy with Edgardo, dutifully illustrating what every note she reveals of her imagination.

Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz is an ardent Edgardo, intense on stage and vibrant on vocals. The first major album is by Alexander Birch Elliott, who is Enrico as the drunk thug from your nightmares. The commanding presence and demanding vocals of Eric Owens, Chaplain Raimondo trying to vindicate the community, is a luxury cast. Anthony León, Madeleine Lyon and Anthony Ciaramitaro, in the small roles of troublemaker Normanno, Lucia’s friend Alisa and ill-fated husband Arturo, all make sure their small roles count.

González-Granados seems to have conquered the orchestra, which played with suave beauty. But his relationship to the stage was, at this first performance, uneven. Slow tempos and a general sense of caution resulted in a dramatic lack of propulsion.

For its part, the chorus rang on the nerves, but acted disconcertingly on the money, as if well practiced to trigger fears of national unrest in a country where a sense of lack of agency could reach the point of crisis.

“Lucia of Lammermoor”

Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 S. Grand Ave., LA

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sept. 28; 2 p.m. on October 2 and 9. (Liv Redpath is Lucia from September 28 to October 9)

Tickets: $20-$324

Information: (213) 972-8001 or

Operating time: 3 hours, 20 minutes