It’s difficult to determine who stole the show opening night at Houston Grand Opera’s thrilling new production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Was it soprano Albina Shagimuratova in the title role? Was it lighting designer Jane Cox? Or was it set and costume designer Liz Ascroft?
This trilogy of talented women makes an Italian opera from 1835 ring brilliantly true in the 21st century. The legendary Dame Joan Sutherland, who passed away last October and to whom the production is dedicated, is well-honored by their efforts.
This is not to say that the men are an after-thought. On the contrary, Dimitri Pittas as Edgardo filled the large Brown Theater with resonant, perfect singing. Italian conductor Antonino Fogliani (in his North American debut) gave a sophisticated and elegant reading of Donizetti’s score. John Doyle’s direction is intriguingly austere, allowing emotion to emerge unhampered. Scott Hendricks, Owen Gradus and Nathaniel Peake in supporting roles are nothing short of stellar.
But as I drifted off to sleep last night, prepared for post-opera turbulent dreams, it was the sound and image of Shagimuratova framed by Ascroft’s cloudy set, and wandering through Cox’s powerful shadows and spots, that dominated my imagination.
This tragic opera might concern itself with the political struggles of two 17th century clans, the Ashtons and the Ravenswoods, but here it is played out in a dream-like landscape of the Scottish moors. Ascroft has painted clouds everywhere, and as the scenes progress, the space is defined by numerous cloud-filled panels that rise and fall.
At first, this is extremely off-putting, especially if you’re looking for a “castle opera” fix. Sometimes the panels appear in strict horizontal layers. At others they fall at sharp angles to the stage and proscenium, making for an almost expressionist landscape. I thought of Fritz Lang, Kafka, and the choreographer Mary Wigman, not to mention the obvious reference, Magritte. It seems here that Ascroft is simply inviting the viewer into an ever-changing maze.
In Act II a few chairs appear to suggest the Ashton castle, and in the third there is a long table covered with a white sheet, under and upon which Shagimuratova delivers the famous “mad” scene. The entire cast wears black, with the exception of Lucia, who wears first an amber taffeta gown, then a wedding dress, and finally a blood-spattered nightgown. Blood is the most prominent pigment in the entire production, especially when Lucia smears it on her brother’s face.
With so little vivid color, the eye needs to something else to follow, and this is provided by Cox’s extraordinary lighting design. The central characters are frequently illuminated so that they appear magnified by towering or dwarfed silhouettes, adding to the expressionist flavor. Cox uses a light touch with this effect, and it seems that the men, in particular, are thus portrayed as they manipulate and plot Lucia’s fate. Their shadows tower over her, along with their physical bodies.
In other scenes, there are golden follow spots and seemingly candle-infused footlights, which give an old-fashioned flavor. Doyle keeps the singers mostly downstage, often facing the audience directly, giving the scenes even greater intimacy. Cox doesn’t ignore the shifting panels as if they were one big entity. Rather, she seems to light each one as if it were a new character in the action.
The title role is a defining one in 20th century opera history. The glories of bel canto, somewhat forgotten as Puccini, Verdi, Wagner and others re-shaped European opera in the latter part of the 19th century, returned when legendary 20th-century singers like Maria Callas and Dame Joan Sutherland brought them to an eager public. Thanks to their legendary interpretations, Lucia di Lammermoor has never fallen out of the modern repertory.
Every so often, however, a singer comes along who makes it her own.
The greatest compliment to Albina Shagimuratova is to say that she belongs in yet another trilogy: with Callas and Sutherland as three great Lucias. Her beautifully confident aria in the second scene of the first act (“Regnava nel silenzio”) was evidence alone; her mad scene in the third act ("Il dolce suone, spargi d'amaro pianto”) confirmed it.
In particular, the cadenza passages with flute accompaniment, delivered while she stood on a wooden table dragging a 20-foot long tablecloth, caused me to tremble. At one moment she pointed into the orchestra pit, suggesting that the gentle flute might be her long-lost lover Edgardo. In the ensemble passages, she lingered just a beat so that her voice was the last to be heard at the cadence.
I don’t know enough about the score to determine whether or not Shagimuratova was singing it as written or adding any number of embellishments, in the tradition of bel canto performance practice. All I’m certain of is that she is a diva to reckon with, and I can’t wait to witness her artistry again.