The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

HGO - Youth informs both vocal leads, podium for Lucia di Lammermoor in abstract new production. Albina Shagimuratova. 05.02.11

Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, last seen downtown in 2002 and 1994 – starring Tiziana Fabbricini (opposite Marcello Giordani) and Laura Claycomb respectively, marked for Houston Grand Opera its second of two new productions to grace the Wortham this season. This also marked quite an important role debut, that of Russian soprano, former HGO studio artist and Tchaikovsky Competition winner Albina Shagimuratova, and also then the HGO debut of Greek-American tenor Dimitri Pittas (remembered from Met in HD as the tearfully plaintive Macduff in fine new production of Macbeth several seasons ago). Antonio Fogliani, with fine dvd (previously Emerging Pictures presentation) of Maria Stuarda from La Scala to his credit (starring Mariella Devia and Anna Caterina Antonacci), made his HGO debut conducting Lucia.

John Doyle, with more theater and Broadway than opera to his credit, for most pacing of this Lucia, laid out on a chilly abstract set, tended most of the way to tread lightly in depicting action on stage, motivations of characters involved, etc. The stage, apart from props of a couple of chairs, long table for the wedding scene, merely consisted of large wide panels or flats of murky, cloudy atmosphere – sitting at both straight and tilted, at times oddly tilted angles – as in part to symbolize a rigidly repressive quality to Scottish society – and the arbitrary murkiness of it all to come to grips, so to speak. What appeared to be nefarious contractual dealings would be seen ensuing mostly on narrow opening to stage rear over to stage left – more insightful than meddlesome. Very stiff, stylized procession of bridesmaids decked out in gray upstaged Raimondo both toward end of the ‘letter scene’ to start Act Two and midway through the tomb scene – as Scott Cantrell of Dallas Morning News found mildly risible. Also, characters interacting with each other tended at times to stand implausibly very close to each other, for situation at hand, relationships to portray. Such most often can not, on terms of emotional or physical intimacy, be plausibly assumed to be better than guarded.

The overall brooding quality of the sets and simplicity of design thereof most certainly did not rob the drama but little of its power or dynamic. Costuming, while mostly drab or abstract, abided well by historical accuracy standards; formal jig danced on stage early on in Act Three, Scene 2 (that before the Wolf’s Crag scene got restored had been Scene 1) was tasteful, but squeezed all a little tight by pressing accents from the orchestra pit, for it presumably not to linger a moment too long.

Still obviously new to singing the part, Albina Shagimuratova made a modest, humble waif type of creature out of Lucia. One writer has quipped already that she dramatically portrayed little of the mental instability of the character – that is, until her final scene on stage, the celebrated Mad Scene, for which the Doyle production suddenly became eccentrically elaborate, in comparison with earlier scenes. As Maria Callas knew full well, most of the insanity depicted in the part should come through the voice, inflection of the musical lines – as in context of when, in which aesthetic Donizetti wrote this opera, any excess of flailing about is bound to look very silly. Fortunately, Doyle and Shagimuratova readily stopped readily short of going over the top with any of the kind.

Shagimuratova had the requisite agility, evenness of line, sweet lyric timbre, mostly secure top to be reckoned quite an interpreter of Lucia – and certainly some real nuance, musical sensitivity for how Donizetti composed it as well. Moments of emotional immediacy with the text, especially at key moments during Act Two, were telling – all that could have been picked up from week of intensive coaching up in New York with Renata Scotto. And yet there here that seemed something altogether held back about her work dramatically - and in this particular instance placed under certain stylistic constraints to presumably fit in well with all else going on.

Legacy perhaps also of having worked with Scotto was a certain thickness that could occur around the break, making for especially during rushed ensembles toward end of Act Two a shrill, sharply tuned approach to acuti (high notes). A greater allowance for flexibility, including from the orchestra pit was necessary here toward ensuring Shagimuratova the best legato shaping of her lines, even individual profile thereof, but that for her opening aria in Act One and Part Two of the Mad Scene did not quite happen. She instead sounded constrained from filling out her lines with the requisite emotional weight and coloration (much leniency still available to do so without distorting proper shape to her lines, stylistic properties thereof).

Part One of the Mad Scene, in which Shagimuratova was eventually given all space she needed, freed her up to color numerous lines with half-lights, thereby to contrast much variety of shape and color very tellingly – all that worked a spell for as long as it would last over the entire hall. This was true, even with playful, even slightly witty distraction of making bridal train out of tablecloth previously covering length of very long rectangular table to represent nuptial festivities on stage, getting her hands smeared with blood, and then 9as thanks to Scott Hendricks for singing their duets together non legato with her?), smearing her stained hands on him. Fluently, most expressively sung cabaletta to her big scena in Act One was also enthralling. In scene with her brother near start of Act Two, one picked up a telling response to individual lines, only for cabaletta especially therein to have become too streamlined as well. With caution heeded as to how to better manage the break and making shifts, this could soon be an interpretation of Lucia to reckon – certainly not dependably surpassed thus far by either Netrebko or Dessay in still relatively new, cluttery Mary Zimmerman production at the Met.

Dimitri Pittas made a dashing figure of Edgardo, if not quite the harried, fraught profile or intensified as such vocally. The indeed fraught qualities of Edgardo’s plight were evident, but perhaps in manner hard to distinguish from that of anybody else much, glib this way, for both the natural lightness of timbre – and as especially toward end of Act Two, being rushed through rendered shapeless Act Two sextet and what follows. Expressive ardor for Lucia was genuine. With ‘assai’ part of Moderato assai’ well observed, but for genuine rubato, shaping thereof, the sempre legato missed, Pittas was equally at glib loss as much as Shagimuratova during a strictly weighted ‘Verranno a te’ moderate paced cabaletta ending Act One. One left for intermission without having picked up grasp of the rapt intensity written therein.

Worrisome about Pittas himself was some constriction right zeroed in around the break that for much of the evening he had trouble freeing himself – except with how he beautifully caressed his lines for ‘Fra poco a me ricovero’ near start of the Tomb Scene. Such relaxation allowed the listener to wrap oneself with ease into the noble profile of Edgardo’s lines and of emotional situation to the fore. Moderato marked cabaletta to this made case for pressing too much forward from the pit, thus for numerous constricted F-sharps from Pittas for not being allowed what is really indeed Edgardo’s space for shaping his lines. Whether the motivation was making 10:30 pm deadline or maintain things within chokehold of purist constraints or both should most likely remain a mystery. Suitable tone of defiance with swagger for lines to sing during the Wolf’s Crag scene Pittas made ring out well. Never was any sincerity in doubt, neither for the most part the musical sensitivity of this still young artist.

Scott Hendricks made moderately short (in stature), stocky appearance as the villainous Henry Ashton, good snarl and swagger of ‘Cruda, funesta smania’ and of some of Wolf’s Crag, but veered riskily close to coming up with stock villainy, mostly due to not being able to employ better than sketchy legato for his lines. Oren Gradus, of robust stature and voice, made a sonorous Raimondo - other than some of his extended range coming across mildly pitted or hollow, something he artfully attempted to hide with extra emphatic declamation during ‘Dalle stanze’, racconta to stunned wedding guests of what has transpired. The abstraction of this Lucia overall gave Gradus somewhat of a pass to settle for a stand up and sing rendition of the subtly duplicitous Raimondo, but he managed to make fine closing impression with his imprecation of Normanno for having been catalyst to tragedy unfolding – gravitas to horror expressed to Edgardo for his seemingly impulsive reaction to news of tragedy all about as well.

Nathaniel Peake looked dashing as Arturo Bucklaw, while hinting at wanting to shy away from F-sharps in his wedding arioso – without having to appear to be road kill for their being there – as has happened with stock casting of this thankless part at more famous houses than the Wortham. Beau Gibson was the astute, cleanly sung, purposeful Normanno, but with a few of his lines covered up by neighboring choristers, all handsomely profiled to near stage rear at opening of the first scene. Rachel Willis-Sorenson, newest among HGO studio members here made very handsome, supportive warm profile of Alisa and her lines. Choral preparation by Richard Bado left nothing to be desired.

Mention as aside to Fogliani here has stopped short of giving him the credit he deserves for his very smart shaping of the overall dramatic profile of Donzietti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. This was apparent right away with the confident giusto he employed with the opening, remarkably terse prelude to Act One that opens this, but also for stormy prelude to Wolf’s Crag as well. His ear for rich color and nuance to delineate form thereof is also fine, but likely expected from him of his forces here a little better weight from the lower strings of the Houston Grand Opera orchestra – remarkably lacking for ominously limning tremoli for to beckon by Enrico (into cabaletta to follow) for Lucia to join wedding festivities and to robustly accompany Edgardo crashing the party as well. Otherwise, this is the best the HGO orchestra has sounded here in perhaps several seasons.

Fogliani certainly could not be accused of any stodginess here, or of yielding to his singers’ thorough command of how all should be shaped to render his work that of a lifeless accompanist. However, what of the sublimely anguished turn in Lucia’s line during Mad scene cabaletta to minor subdominant on a high C-Flat that here got mercilessly shaved off to maintain consistently breezy pace through it?

In place of stodginess one had the sense of practically a definite compartmentalization of, detachment in negotiating musical proceedings, even remindful somewhat of a young Riccardo Muti – more so except perhaps for two moments than of Patrick Summers and his ‘period’ motivated approach to bel canto thus far. It is perhaps not to scrupulize, not to blow off the dust of tradition enough to mark with light (unmarked poco allargando) lift the crest of opening line to ‘Per te d’immenso giubilo’, but the swagger to inform animated triplets (to prevent them from turning stiff) to spin off from such then goes missing - and somewhat did so here – making for detached instead of sustained framing this choral interlude should provide.

The score here was presented unabridged, except just in part in interest of keeping the action moving, for cutting several repeats. The obvious fire in Fogliani’s approach, especially when not excessively sweeping other elements out of the way, made for a refreshing debut here – even though one might reckon a better filled out, more holistic approach to presenting all of Donzett’s Lucia di Lammermoor in new production such as just opened here.

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