Donizetti – Lucia di Lammermoor

ONP – Bastille, Monday October 2 2006

Conductor: Evelino Pidò. Production: Andrei Serban. Sets and costumes: William Dudley. Lucia: Natalie Dessay. Edgardo di Ravenswood: Matthew Polenzani. Arturo Bucklaw: Salvatore Cordella. Enrico Ashton: Ludovic Tézier. Raimondo Bidebent: Kwangchul Youn. Alisa: Marie-Thérèse Keller. Normanno: Christian Jean. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Natalie Dessay was the third soprano I’d seen as Lucia in Serban’s once-notorious, now simply familiar “gymnasium” production. The first, June Anderson, was as vocally over-cautious and dramatically inexistent as in New York a year or so before: a bore. Mariella Devia, the second, was vocally a huge improvement. But even she did not quite have Dessay’s outstanding acting skills and magnetism, which (along with the welcome presence of a glass harmonica in the pit) made this by far the best Lucia I’ve ever witnessed.

Whether it’s the effect of two operations or simply of age, Dessay’s voice has changed. It is fuller and rounder, with a dark undertone giving it interesting depth (this was always there to some extent and is, I think, the element of her voice that sounds “hard” on disc, whereas it has always been thrilling live). If there was ever anything of the mere “nightingale” coloratura about her, it has gone. Her dynamic range is almost unexpectedly broad for someone with such a tiny frame: she took serious risks with whispering pianissimo in the barn of the Bastille and carried it off; while her top notes range out gloriously over the full orchestra.

But of course the main thing is her near-unique combination of singing and acting skills. This is an acrobatic production physically as well as vocally. Playing the part (convincingly) as a barely pubescent teenager, she sang Quando rapito in estasi first sitting, then standing on a swing strung from high up above the Bastille’s vast stage, flying way out over the orchestra pit. At times she sang climbing over or even sliding under bunk beds, and her final scene took place crawling over a 20-foot pyramid of collapsed gymnasium wall-bars (more of that later).

The highlight, I think, was during her first big Act II number, at Sparsa è di rose!, which was one of those rare moments at the opera where everything seems to stand still, where even Parisians are reduced to a pin-drop silence, and where through sheer magnetism, a singer creates a feeling of intimacy between herself and the audience, despite the cavernous dimensions of the theatre. At that point (helped certainly by the eerie sound of that glass harmonica) Dessay was spellbinding. As the French daily Le Monde put it: “the artistry of Natalie Dessay carried the performance over into another dimension, one rarely achieved, where the boundaries between a work of art and life itself become confused.”

The rest of the cast was fairly strong, too. Matthew Polenzani is a beautifully lyrical tenor with an interesting grain to the voice, better suited to his final scene than to the more dramatic outbursts of Act I. Ludovic Tézier started the evening well, a magnificent Donizetti-Verdi baritone as usual, but seemed to fade away as the evening went on: not on his usual form, then. Kwangchul Youn was a remarkable Raimondo.

Less remarkable were a rather squally Salvatore Cordella and wobbly Marie-Thérèse Keller, but these are not parts that make or break Lucia. The orchestra, under Evelino Pidó, was a good deal better-behaved and nuanced than for La Clemenza last week; and if at times there were problems of balance between pit and stage, it was probably more audible where we were, at the front of a balcony where the sound surges up, than downstairs.

The Opéra national’s website gives the key to Serban’s production: “[This is] the story of a woman manipulated and pushed to despair by a world of men, militaristic and arrogant.” The action takes place in a semi-circular space, the inside of a massive tower. The ground level is lined with numbered doors; above them, a gallery for the chorus (top-hatted gents and crinolined ladies); above that, a few iron-framed skylights.

The space was, first, a gymnasium full of ropes and beams and wall bars and men practising the arts of war; then a dormitory with three-tier bunk beds to climb under and over; finally, an outdoor space for the wedding, with a giant climbing frame for acrobatics displays as part of the festivities, straw on the floor and a few paper lanterns to brighten things up. It was this frame that collapsed into a pyramidal heap as, I suppose, a symbol of Lucia’s disarray and the collapse of her brother’s plans; and over this tall pyramid of bars that she crawled during her final aria.

Well, the space is certainly claustrophobic and the atmosphere oppressively masculine, but somehow the extras engaged in constant acrobatics remain “extra,” i.e. not really part of the action but rather as if pasted on to it. The more intimate scenes are more successful. But at any rate this is a better-managed production than the Met’s or the Châtelet’s, and no-one could claim it is ill-rehearsed or that Dessay wasn’t throwing herself into it fully. A good start, then, to the Opéra National’s season.

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