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Few arias scream “OPERA!” like the mad scene from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Early-19th-century bel canto composers loved the device of the mad scene, an extended number (usually late in the evening) in which the heroine twitters reams of coloratura to indicate a complete psychotic breakdown. But the one in Lucia’s final act has long been considered the coloratura soprano’s Everest. Nearly 20 minutes long and involving an elaborate, echoing duet between the soprano and a hyperactive solo flute in the orchestra, the Lucia mad scene has been lampooned nearly as often as the Viking-helmeted Brunnhilde’s battle cry. Check out Groucho Marx’s deliciously savage parody in Copacabana and you’ll laugh yourself sick over just how extravagantly silly—and how utterly divorced from real life—opera is.

Or is it? Lucia has been forced by her bullying brother (Enrico) to marry a man she doesn’t love (Arturo) and forsake the love of her life (Edgardo), who just happens to be her brother’s mortal enemy. On her wedding night, Lucia stabs her bridegroom to death and wanders back to the wedding reception in her blood-soaked nightgown, seeking her lost boyfriend. That’s when all those deranged trills and stratospheric high notes start flying around, no small wonder. Melodramatic? Sure, but with a solid core of truth. This is no love-struck kid losing her shit because the dreamy guy in class won’t look at her; this is a woman driven to homicide when a miserable home life and a crushing loss become too much to bear.

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The best modern interpreters of the part—Sills, Sutherland, Scotto, Gruberova, and, above all, Callas, who made this a signature role—understood Lucia’s pre-Zoloft predicament and invested her ornamented vocal lines with psychological purpose. Elizabeth Futral, who sings Lucia in Washington Opera’s new production (with Lyubov Petrova substituting on Oct. 4), follows very much in their footsteps. Hers may not be a voice with the distinctiveness of timbre of those singers’, but, at this early stage in Futral’s career, it’s a prettier, more youthfully fresh sound than any of them possessed. Compact, confident, and supple enough to maneuver around the trickiest turns in Donizetti’s writing, Futral’s middleweight soprano possesses the all-important ability to register dramatic intention and convey emotion. Her phrasing is musical, intelligent, and always character-driven.

Couple that fine voice with her Hollywood-starlet beauty and you’ve already got a pretty formidable package. But her artistry shines most brightly in an area where most singers give off, at best, a dull glow: acting. And Futral is one of the most natural and affecting actors currently working in opera. Her mad scene isn’t built from a series of wild-eyed grimaces or telegraphed by cupping her hands to her ears, listening for that damn flute. This Lucia appears truly mad because Futral recognizes that psychosis can express itself as normal-seeming behavior. Her Lucia interacts with her delusions as un-self-consciously as any of us might behave in normal conversation—and the effect is chilling.

Cranking up the thrill factor a few extra notches is a set of vocal ornaments Futral has added. Bel canto composers took it as a given that singers would further embellish their florid vocal lines, and that tradition has flourished, particularly in performances of popular showpieces like Lucia. The new material pushes just beyond the harmonic language Donizetti would have known but engages the Opera House Orchestra’s flutist in a kind of anything-you-can-sing-I-can-play-weirder brinkmanship that sounds truly improvised. More’s the pity we can’t have here the glass harmonica Donizetti originally wrote into the orchestration. Anyone who’s heard Sills’ knockout recording of the opera knows just how well that otherworldly instrument suggests madness. Given the ride Futral takes us on while duetting with a flute, hooking her up with a glass harmonica would pretty well stop the show.

Remarkable, too, is the wealth of behavioral detail Futral brings to Lucia’s first aria, “Regnava nel silenzio,” and to the ensuing love duet with Edgardo. Both pieces are often delivered in a kind of moony, pastel wash, but here Lucia cycles between openhearted, schoolgirl giddiness and all-consuming depression, between groundedness and hallucination. Establishing her as both a borderline personality and a romantic young woman with the potential for a happy future points up the tragic implications of the story and lends both the murder and the mad scene a needed sense

of inevitability.

Of course, the coherent arc of Futral’s performance owes a lot to the work of film-actress-turned-opera-director Marthe Keller. Keller obviously connects strongly with the elemental passions coursing through this Walter Scott-inspired, Scotland-set tale. Sounds of pounding surf greet the audience before a single note of music is played, and by the final curtain, we’ve been treated to fire, rain, amplified thunder, and billows of ground-hugging fog. With James Noone’s handsome set of monoliths and stage-spanning, photorealist images of roiling skies as a backdrop, Enrico Ashton’s unhappy family compound comes to feel like a Highlands House of Atreus, with a particularly nasty God relieving himself on its inhabitants on an hourly basis.

Keller engages in a bit of semaphoric nonsense with the chorus from time to time, but otherwise her staging is clearheaded. Refreshingly, she refuses to take Lucia’s characters at face value. Enrico is no longer a proud, swaggering villain, but a small, beaten-down man given to waves of guilt and fits of impotent rage. Edgardo emerges not as a dashing, Byronesque hero but as a death-haunted depressive who seems to progressively fold in on himself as his romance with Lucia goes south. Arturo becomes an even blander-than-usual yes-man who evinces little apparent interest in his new bride. And moral authority shifts, in this staging, from the Ashtons’ minister-in-residence, Raimondo, to Enrico’s personal attack dog, Normanno.

These are fine, cogent ideas. But the gulf between the director’s good dramatic instincts and the cast’s poor ones—Futral obviously excepted—can be painful to watch. Too often, the gentlemen in the cast treat their more agitated moments as opportunities to saw the air with cartoonish gestures, and they tend to fall into poses and go vacant behind the eyes when introspection is called for. Alfredo Portilla’s Edgardo offends the least in this regard, thanks less to any particular subtlety of expression than to an all-purpose affability that avoids embarrassing excess. The singer’s tenor promises much: Ringing, communicative, and suffused with Latin warmth, it’s ideally suited to Donizetti’s ardent writing. If Portilla can soften the hard edge his upper register occasionally takes on and raise his low-affect stage presence to the high-octane level of his voice, he could become a very important singer. (Jose Bros sings the role on Oct. 5.)

Jorge Lagunes’ Enrico (a role he alternates with Franck Ferrari throughout the run) is nearly as satisfying vocally, even though his fist-to-forehead histrionics are a bit much to take. If his middle voice is modest-sized and further muted by soft sibilants, he’s nonetheless a rarity among baritones, possessing both clarion high notes and a rich, vibrant bottom. He delivers a smooth bel canto line, as does the lightweight but mellifluous bass Stephen Morscheck as nice-guy holy man Raimondo. Tenors Robert Baker and Corey Evan Rotz are reliable as Normanno and Arturo, respectively, and Keri Alkema makes a positive impression in the easy-to-overlook role of Lucia’s confidante, Alisa.

Emmanuel Villaume once again proves himself a conductor valuable to WashOp. No mere time-beater, he finds a lightness of step in the harp-dominated intro to Lucia’s first scene and whips the finale of Act 2 into an exhilarating whirl. In tune with the meteorological energy the director has woven into the production, Villaume coaxes the kind of thunder from his orchestra that a certain resident German maestro seems unwilling to employ. There may have been a couple of fleeting orchestral glitches on opening night, but Villaume’s fluid, singer-sensitive work has been a constant in all the operas he’s conducted with the company.

There will always be those who see the whole of bel canto opera as one big, slap-happy mad scene. It takes a smart, exciting, beautifully sung staging to remind us how much anguish and yearning lie at the heart of all that bird song. And even Groucho would find it hard to get juicy schtick out of this production. CP