(Photo by Ken Howard)
I want to see Carmen again.
Perhaps Bel Canto isn’t my thing. And most definitely, Natalie Dessay isn’t my thing. The effort it took to sit through almost four hours of The Met’s over-hyped new production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (Directed by Mary Zimmerman and designed by Daniel Ostling) was so irritating that I would have left had I not felt compelled to stay because I’m reviewing it.
Listen, I’m not getting off on panning this thing. And I’m not just slamming it because it was hyped so much. But there are real flaws with both the production and the opera itself. What concerns me more than tearing it a new hole, is the fact that it seems the Met’s hype-machine has won this battle, the audience can’t tell the difference between a distinguished voice and a flashy voice, and this production is bound to be revived: Unless we have anything to say about it.
So, first, the opera. There’s a reason one does not study Donizetti operas in music school the way, say, you would study those by Mozart, Weber, Verdi and Wagner. They just aren’t that good. And Lucia di Lammermoor is the perfect example of how Bel Canto music was written slapdash to showcase showy singing with little or no attention paid to how the music connects to the theater going on around it. Lucia sounds like a string of one meaningless song after another. What’s worse is that the emotion behind the music rarely matches up to the drama that is supposed to be taking place. For instance, in the final act, when Raimondo (John Relyea) and Edgardo (Marcello Giordani) are about to kill each other before Lucia (Natalie Dessay) decides to kill the man she doesn’t want to marry (Stephen Costello), the music is the hokiest, non-dramatic, tra-la-la-la-la schtick. It’s just another hit number. And the music of this opera isn’t catchy in the way that the music to Carmen is catchy. The only reason its melodies–built here incessantly upon upward-resolving appoggiaturas (which are sometimes referred to as “retardations”, appropriately enough)–get stuck in your head is not because they move you, but because they are repeated over and over until the creepy little tunes are beat into your memory. (As we were milling up the aisles for first intermission–at last!–I heard a gentleman behind me humming the “lover’s tune” that had just bludgeoned our ears. A woman next to him said, “Yes, it’s very recognizable.”) We’re getting a little hot-headed here, but this has to be said. There is no reason we should really be producing this opera anymore. At the very least, there is no reason to make it a showcase of any opera season, unless you want to beat your patrons to death with mediocre theater and tasteless, show-stoppy singing where every aria has to end–only literally–on a high note. This is perhaps the most blatant ploy Donizetti uses to curry applause from the audience. And it worked last night, despite some sketchy singing.
About the singing…
Perhaps Dessay is an acquired flavor. Still, this is a flavor I don’t think should be fashionable to acquire, nor do I ever care to hear it again. Okay, okay. She has an acrobatically elastic voice. She has the range and the facility to pull off those crazy cadenzas and catapult those rocketed high notes at the end of every song. But her technique is so riddled with vocal trickery that you can never get a solid sense of her. I was sitting there thinking, How many gears does this chick have? She’s like a ten speed bicycle; or motorcycle. And the gear shifting occurs whenever, and conspicuously; sometimes within a single note. Floating a high D and drifting from a forte to a pianissimo isn’t impressive if you can’t do it without widening your embouchure, dropping the tone down into your throat, and making a weird face. The achievement becomes virtuosic when it can be done without noticeable effort. Without that veneer of effortlessness, she just becomes one in a million sopranos who have the notes but not the polish. Her vowels were all over the place as well, often defaulting into a schwa, like, whenever she seemed to feel like it.
Now, Dessay (and part of me senses that I’m devoting so much time to her because her image has been so copiously replicated throughout the city) is a dramatic performer. She sings with her body and there were moments this were pretty amazing to watch, particularly during the famous go-crazy scene. A particularly notable affect was when she began shaking and laughing and, perhaps against the tastes of some opera fanatics, allowed the shaking and hysterics to enter to the vocal line. Here, I don’t mind the vocal tricks so much. It’s appropriate here. Just not all the time, and never as the meat and potatoes of a general vocal technique. I overheard a woman–during second intermission–say, “She doesn’t call herself a singer. She calls herself an actress.” Well doesn’t that just explain everything! My advice is that she focus a little more on the singing. Sitting through almost four hours of listening to Dessay figure out how she’s going to hit her notes was simply exhausting.
There were some other singers in the opera. Marcello Giordani was reliable as Edgardo. He belted out the high notes and did his best to woo, although his tone could get a little pinched. John Relyeas’ Raimondo was solid. Michaela Martens was a satisfying sidekick to Dessay’s Lucia. I wanted to hear more of here, but Bel Canto is the territory of lyrics, not mezzo’s, so you really only get to enjoy her in one scene. Michael Myers was inaudible as Normanno (partly due to James Levine’s orchestral free-for-all that was taking place in the pit–the strings sounded great but everything else was out of balance). Mariusz Kwiecien was bold and booming as Lord Enrico Ashton, but he had a tendency to get pitchy (a la American Idol) near the end. And Stephen Costello as Arturo… Wait. Did he even sing?
Now listen, I’m not just being a bitch. The Metropolitan Opera is assumed to be the best opera company in the country. Thus, it should be held up to the highest scrutiny, and this production of Lucia suffers in concept and execution on all levels. And the dreariness of the opera itself cannot be hoped to compensate for such deficiencies. The best operas I have ever seen produced have been at The Met, so I know what they’re capable of. And sadly, the opening number of this season falls very far, and very hard.
And for all the hype, this should have been better. One came away with the feeling that Peter Gelb–with his own flashiness in hand–has pulled one over on the city. This is my concern with most of his ideas to draw a broader appeal to opera; that substance will trickle to a thread as spectacle begins to tap the source. But then, isn’t that what Bel Canto is all about?