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LA Opera's New 'Lucia' Survives its Odd Scenic Detour

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Though it happens to be set in Scotland, "Lucia di Lammermoor" is one of the great bel canto warhorses of the 19th-century Italian operatic canon. The heightened emotional intensity of Gaetano Donizetti's melodrama stems in large part, of course, from its basic story of a forbidden love between Lucia and Edgardo, scions of rival political families, but also, and above all, from the composer's strong musical characterizations of the tortured couple and the powerful figures who serve their own agendas by keeping the two of them apart.

This doomed affair, Lucia's resulting descent into madness, and the violent crimes of passion that ensue all demand a cast that can both dominate the vocal challenges posed by Donizetti's constant stream of melody and also put the action forward compellingly without undue scenery-chewing. Thankfully, LA Opera's new production of "Lucia," which opened earlier this month, delivers such a cast. So why did we feel there was something off about the whole evening?

But, first, those performances. Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova is one of the world's most prominent Lucias right now, having just sung the role at La Scala in Milan last month, with a run at the Met in New York scheduled for next season. Tenor Saimir Pirgu plays Edgardo not only with passionate abandon, but also great dignity and strength. As Lucia's brother, Enrico, who stands in the way of her happy union with Edgardo, the baritone Stephen Powell is convincing as a real bastard with just a flicker of regret for his own venality. In the small role of Arturo, the man Enrico forces Lucia to marry instead of Edgardo, Vladimir Dmitruk sings very well indeed. And bass James Creswell, a veteran of over 30 productions and 200 performances on the LA Opera stage, is excellent as usual as the chaplain Raimondo, who serves as Enrico's advisor.

Distracting from all the solid work of the cast, though, is a production and scenic design concept that surrounds the singers with a series of strange light and color projections that never cohere into a consistent psychological thematic setting for the work.

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During the first-act aria "Regnava nel silenzio" ("Silence reigned"), for example, in which Lucia describes meeting the ghost of a young woman murdered by her lover, an over-sized video image of that woman's face, constantly changing expressions until we even had to stifle a laugh, is projected on to the set. And throughout Lucia's famous 15-plus minute mad scene, "Il dolce suono" ("The Sweet Sound"), which serves as the opera's dramatic pinnacle, the projection of a shimmering, undulating circle of dark gray--a visual effect like nothing we'd ever seen before--had us mesmerized. But that's not what anybody should want to be mesmerized by in the very moment when Shagimuratova's Lucia herself is thrillingly spiraling out of control. (As if to punctuate the production's odd scenic choices, two young audience members at the March 20 performance made their way to the back of the house after the first act and spent the better part of the intermission standing in front of the projection light source and casting enlarged animal hand shadows on the brightly colored scrim that functioned as the stage's curtain.)

Inadvertent competition with the light show notwithstanding, Shagimuratova is very much the star of this production and not only in the second-act mad scene (intriguingly accompanied, in part, by a glass harmonica in the pit). The "Quando rapito in estasi" ("In the rapture of ecstasy") aria early on lets her gush in short-lived pure joy, and her love duet with Pirgu's Edgardo effectively establishes the strength of their relationship. The collected principals also nicely handle the intricate sextet which presages the violent aftermath of that relationship's demise.

The LA Opera Chorus, under the direction of Grant Gershon, is in fine form as always.

LA Opera's "Lucia di Lammermoor" plays this afternoon at 2 and then for three more performances through April 6.