Wednesday, September 22, 2010

More than just a Pretty Tune

I'm Sue, your new Education Director, and I have a confession to make:  

I LOVE LUCIA. (Not the tv show, the opera.)

We've had some lively debates in the opera offices recently, about the merits (or debits) of Donizetti’s enduring tragic melodrama, so I want to set the record straight and tell you that Lucia is a great opera. Don't believe anybody who tells you it's just for those who love Twittering Coloratura Sopranos. In fact, I'd like to take this opportunity to clarify what Luciais about and what it isn't about.

What is Lucia About?

Impossible Choices. Like all great tragedies, Lucia puts people with whom we can identify in situations where there's no good way out. For Enrico, the much-maligned villain of the piece, the rock and the hard place are represented by alignment with the “wrong” political party and responsibility to provide for his sister on their crumbling estate. For the hot-blooded Edgardo, it’s falling in love with his “Juliet.” But she is no innocent Shakespearean Juliet.  This one’s family has already killed the rest of Edgardo’s family and confiscated his estate.  For our desperate mad bride, Lucia, the final straw comes when Arturo, a man she doesn't love and doesn't even know, takes her to the honeymoon suite to consummate their marriage...

Adolescence. Everyone in this story--except the old priest, Raimondo--is very young, and tends to make decisions the way young people sometimes do...hormones.  And like some of the young adults we all know, there's not a whole lot of listening going on.  I also imagine that Lucia, before she makes her first entrance to deliver "Regnava nel silencio," has spent the afternoon plucking petals from daisies: "He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me..." and so on.

Romanticism with a Capital R. Everything about the story and music of this opera screams "Romanticism," as in the artistic movement of early nineteenth-century Europe. Just like our contemporary stories about sexy vampires and werewolves, in Lucia’s world men are more attractive if they're renegades, outcasts and outlaws; and women are appealing the closer they are to hysteria, madness and death. Musically, Romanticism in opera was all about moving away from a "number opera" structure, where the audience interrupts the action with applause every few minutes, and toward a "through-composed" structure.

A balance of action and reflection. Although the music of Lucia does stop and start a bit, the pacing is terrific. There's never so much plot that you find your ears are aching for a nice melody; and the hit numbers, the arias and ensembles, never belabor the point, they show off the singers' voices and get on with it.

Music which never forfeits elegance and beauty. Although this story of madness and murder is grim, ugly, and perverted, music didn't "do" ugly when Donizetti wrote the opera in 1835. (It took Wagner's Tristan und Isolde to change that rule, a couple of decades later.)

What is Lucia NOT About?

Scotland. Sure, it's based on Sir Walter Scott's historical novel which was about Scotland (Scotland: chapters 1 – 31 inclusive; the meat of the opera: chapters 32 - 35). But the opera is extremely Italian and the story absolutely timeless.  We'll have a kilt-free zone onstage--although we can't predict what the audience will choose to wear.

“Oom-pah-pah” Accompaniment. From the very first note of the Prelude, Donizetti uses the orchestra to evoke an intensely emotional environment.  He delivers (A) foreboding (B) extreme melodrama (C) unresolved feelings and (D) surprise - all of that in only the first two pages of a 250-page score.  The harpist and principal flute player Make It Big in this opera, with nerve-wracking solos guaranteed to delight.  Just try and figure out how the flute and Lucia “sing” in complete synchronization during the mad scene…we dare you!

Fancying Canaries. Although there's plenty in Lucia for the "canary-fanciers" (opera-goers who get most excited about sopranos who can execute perfect, and seemingly endless, flurries of high notes) to enjoy, there's more to the opera than that; and even if you don't idolize divas who are acrobats in the vocal stratosphere, you'll still love this opera.

Cardboard Characters. Bel canto operas like Lucia sometimes get a bad rap because the libretti aren't as richly written as operas from later on in the historical tradition. But that just means it's up to the performer to figure out all the details of the biography and personality and get you to believe in the character.

Ambivalence and Shades of Gray. The entire opera is super-saturated, think highest of high and lowest of low. Love, fury, terror, bloody death. No Wagnerian navel-gazing or Benjamin Britten hand-wringing about "Am I a good person?"

Halloween. We'll have a performance the night before; and the opera does feature ghosts and a lot of blood. But it's more than a silly ghost story. It's all about people—all about us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ms. Elliott,
for an excellent introduction of (1) yourself and (2) the opera "Lucia". It is hard to replace an irreplaceable like Perry Lorenzo, but, if you do your job in your own personal way (like your start-off here), I'm sure you will also make a great Director of Education at the great Seattle Opera!! Toi, toi, toi!!!!!!
-Win H.