Italian romantic operas weren't designed to be high art. They were designed to be rollicking entertainment. Gaetano Donizetti was the Andrew Lloyd Webber of nineteenth century Italy. He wrote big popular musicals with hit songs and lots of show-off room for the singing talents of the star performers. Lucia di Lammermoor is Donizetti's best serious opera and one of the most glorious Italian operas ever written. Opera Theatre of St. Louis' thoughtful production of it yields an evening of thoroughly satisfying musical theater.
Opera historians call the period in which Donizetti wrote the Bel Canto Period. "Bel canto" means beautiful singing. It was a time during which the lead sopranos ruled the theater. Every opera had to have at least one spectacular (and usually loooong) aria during which the soprano could be alone on stage impressing everyone with her gorgeous voice. This was usually accomplished by a murder, a suicide or a mad scene (a scene in which the singer loses her mind right before the audience) for her to sing through. Lucia di Lammermoor, attempting the trifecta of romantic bel canto, has all three.
The four main roles in this production are played by very bel cantors, indeed. They sing and act their parts with art and substance and emotion. Jennifer Welch-Babidge is an exquisite Lucia. Her dark coloratura (full range) soprano voice is a perfect match for the eerie, decaying, Gothic setting director Stefano Vizioli has chosen for this production. James Westman as Henry, her scheming brother, exudes dramatic frustration that becomes trembling rage as his plan to arrange a financially and politically useful marriage for Lucia -- whether she wants it or not -- goes catastrophically awry. Shawn Mathey plays Lucia's secret lover, the passionate but down-at-the-heels Lord Edgar, Henry's sworn enemy. Derrick Parker has the right mix of force and feeling as the local priest, Father Raymond, whom Henry cons into convincing Lucia that Edgar has been unfaithful.
This opera's strength stems from its construction. The plot line is clear and cleverly drawn from Sir Walter Scott's novel of corrupt infighting among lower-level seventeenth century Scottish royalty. The libretto rides the music elegantly. Solo arias in which the characters ruminate on their situation or work through their feelings are important in bel canto opera. In this version of Lucia, the balance between action and reflection is just right. The score soars and roils as the story does the same.
There is also great balance between the solos of the four principal singers and singing opportunities for the rest of the company. Lucia has duets with Edgar, Henry and Raymond, who all sing duets with each other. At one point Edgar bursts in on Henry. Their duet becomes a trio with Lucia. More characters gradually join in until the song evolves into a sparkling, darkly beautiful sextet. The six voices swell in glowing effortless counterpoint. All of this builds until the chorus (wedding guests of Lucia and her ill-fated husband) adds dramatic crescendos or mournful choirs to each scene. Each piece of solo or group singing is movingly sung and propels the story forward. OTSL, while bringing in the finest young singers, has always avoided creating vehicles for individual stars; preferring to create musical plays that are a group effort. Lucia's staging makes excellent use of a cast of very fine singers.
Donizetti's music creates a nearly continuous dramatic flow. Conductor Stephen Lord's crew of St. Louis Symphony musicians furnishes a firm foundation for the singers and the drama. Both energy and mood are served well. Stage director Vizioli and set designer Allen Moyer's elegantly articulate and functional set allows for smooth transitions and sustains the show's aura of ghostly, crumbling, Gothic Scotland.
If you're looking for beautiful and restrained singing and deft, intelligent staging, OTSL's spirited and lovely version of Donzetti's Lucia di Lammermoor is certain to entertain you.