Victorian Nightmare

David Alden risks alienating those who prefer their operas romantic and bloodless, but delivers something worth the price

A stylized Victorian nightmare with lashes of Sam Peckinpah realism and the odd sporran, David Alden’s rendering of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor isn’t for everyone. But, then again, why should it be? Opera is as organic as any living organism and, like anything that must thrive, it benefits from a widening of the gene pool. And so, even as Alden risks alienating those who prefer their operas romantic and bloodless, he arguably delivers something worth the price — a deeper psychological component.

Put another way, even if you don’t care for his Victorians or his blood, you will nevertheless “get” this tale of the relentless repression of a young and vulnerable psyche and its final expression through murder. It is a Lucia explained and that alone is worth a dash of concept.

Sarah Cobrnas Lucia and Michael Chioldias Enrico

Sarah Coburn’s Lucia and Michael Chioldi’s Enrico

(Photo by Scott Suchman)

And yet, even as a concept piece, the Washington National Opera’s production hardly courts scandal; Alden has done nothing to obscure or alter the narrative. It is still very much the tale of a young woman driven mad by her repressive brother and her unyielding lover.

What Alden has done, with the help of Charles Edwards’s cavernous municipal sets and Adam Silverman’s stark lighting (in which the shadows are as distorted as the souls who make them), is envision the tale more as dream than reality. And as such, he is far freer to explore and evoke the enormous, inescapable pressure that finally consumes Lucia.

And thus, as the cast largely come and go through windows instead of doors, we sense that the doors to freedom are closed to Lucia while the windows onto her world are full of watching Victorian eyes. If these scenes are a bit cumbersome in reality, the ideas they represent are effective and interesting.

Similarly, Alden’s emphasis on this Lucia as more girl than woman, though unseemly at first, also serves its dreamlike purpose. Her childishness contrasts almost grotesquely with the aggressive attentions of Edgardo, her secret boyfriend (if not lover) with a chip the size of Edinburgh on his shoulder, and Enrico, her distinctly creepy and overbearing brother. As each man makes his demands, as uncompromising as they are mutually exclusive, Lucia’s childishness evaporates, and she emerges into young womanhood, abject and physically limp, despite her heartfelt song. Cast as gloomily surreal, with toys for props and a bed like a crib, this physical manifestation from innocent child to subjugated woman lays powerful groundwork for Lucia’s eventual psychological rupture.

As Lucia, soprano Sarah Coburn, a tad self-conscious when being girlish, eventually comes into her own while capturing Lucia’s transition into helplessness and despair as the repressions and expectations mount. With a sweet, thick-as-cream tone you will either love or not love, once warmed-up, Coburn sings with fluidity and confidence. By the signature mad scene, she delivers a sharp sense of a broken mind, if not quite the tragedy of lost joy.

As dominating brother Enrico, baritone Michael Chioldi walks a fine line. It’s not easy being a repugnant character, especially with Alden’s interest in suggesting, at worst, the incestuous, and at best, a thorough unpleasantness, but Chioldi keeps Enrico as compelling as he is awful. Harder to sell are the man’s sudden moments of remorse, which come across as abrupt and out of character. Still, despite these awkward moments, Chioldi sings with a rich, beautifully flexible tone, serving Donizetti’s somber score well.

As Lucia’s love-interest, Edgardo, Saimir Pirgu, be-kilted, shaggy-haired and generally miffed, seems to have stumbled in from another, earthier version of the opera. Still, gusto-driven and full of dangerous tenor intent, Pirgu creates a pleasingly noble sound, despite a few rough edges, and ups the emotional ante when onstage.

LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR
starstarstar
Nov. 18 and 19
Kennedy Center
Opera House
$25-$300
202-467-4600
kennedy-center.org

Of the supporting cast, Sarah Mesko as Lucia’s companion Alisa, delivers one of Alden’s more inspired symbols. Often revealed in repose after an important scene, her silent expressions and poses of sorrow are skillfully handled and affecting. Her few moments in song offer a golden mezzo-soprano. As Arturo, the man whom Lucia is forced to marry, Corey Evan Rotz sings with a bright, clear tenor and offers enough charisma (at least until a corpse) to make one wonder if he would be all that bad when compared to the hot-headed Edgardo.

Lucia is not an easy production, but you may want to recall the words of another less tragic Scot, Sir James Dewar: ”Minds are like parachutes. They only function when they are open.”

Please note that this is a shared cast. Many of the leads will be sung by different artists depending on the date.

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