Thursday, September 21, 2017

Bel canto and Scottish battlements at Forest Lawn


Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Pacific Opera Project, Forest Lawn, Glendale

The assembled company in the closing stages of Lucia di Lammermoor at Forest Lawn.

LA’s premier necropolis seemed an unlikely venue for this late-summer outdoor production from Pacific Opera Project (POP), but the terrace on Forest Lawn’s summit, after a maybe-contemplative walk across the marble flagstones between the museum and the cathedral, turned out to be a near-ideal setting for Donizetti’s blood-boltered melodramatic tragedy. Even the terrace’s strategic orientation westward added to the effect, with the setting sun’s salmon-pink aura deepening to dark grey behind the distant mountains, and throwing POP’s splendidly battlemented set into sharp relief (no pretentious nonsense here about making the opera “relevant” by giving it some pointless contemporary transplant!). 

Donizetti in 1835, at the time of composing
Lucia di Lammermoor (artist unknown).
The shape of the terrace necessitated the orchestra being placed to the far left rather than centrally between stage and audience, virtually out of the latter’s sight but fortunately not (quite) out of earshot. Indeed this position, immediately in front of the boundary wall, may have helped in throwing their sound forward a little but also, I fear, gave the conductor Isaac Selya a crick in the neck from having constantly to turn his head sharp right in order to keep contact between singers and players. 

Of course, there is an aural price to pay for an out-door setting, and that’s the total lack of resonance. However, the ear adjusted pretty quickly to the etiolated orchestral sound, and I for one found letting nature take its course far preferable to any sort of crude amplification. Doubtless due to geography and economics, the string strength was chamber-sized, but Donizetti’s full complement of woodwind, horns, trumpets, harp, and percussion were, I think, present. Interestingly, the timpani seemed to be the small historical kind that have a much lighter, dryer sound than modern instruments, so that the opera’s opening – two pianissimo drum taps – was virtually inaudible. Indeed I suspect that much of the audience, still preoccupied with the wine and nibbles POP generously included in the table seating price, didn’t realize the opera had actually begun. 

l: Daniel Scofield (Enrico);
r: Robert Norman (Normanno).
Having been to similar open-air performances where conviviality definitely trumped attention, I had some concern about audience response, but need not have worried. Donizetti’s dramatic instinct brings his principal villain into the action very quickly, and baritone Daniel Scofield as Lucia’s duplicitous, vengeful, and manipulative brother Enrico duly seized the moment, and roared and snarled his beard-thrusting, tam o’shanter-quivering, kilt-swirling way into the role, stilling audience murmurs and cellphone-checking by sheer force of personality. 

Donizetti is equally canny in holding back the appearance of his titular heroine to the first Act’s second scene, when the main bones of the plot have already been made clear previously through exchanges between Enrico, Normanno his sidekick heavy (Robert Norman, tenor, equally villainous with eye patch), and Raimondo the family chaplain (Nicholas Boragno, bass-baritone, making the best of this rather thankless I-just-want-everyone-to-get-on-together part). 

l: Danielle Bond (Alisa); centre: Jamie Chamberlin (Lucia); r: Silent ghost.
The demanding title role was shared across POP’s five performances by sopranos Bevin Hill and Jamie Chamberlin, who in the final evening that we enjoyed was fully up to its considerable demands, once a slight tendency early on to flounce had disappeared as the character’s helplessness vulnerability grew. Her vocal credentials of purity of tone and coloratura skill that never went over the top into self-indulgence were immediately apparent in her first long duet with her handmaid Alisa (Danielle Bond, mezzo-soprano, in the other rather thankless role), where Josh Shaw’s production also included the fine imaginative touch (above) of bringing on the ghost of a girl killed on the very same spot by a jealous ancestor, clearly visible to Lucia but not to Alisa, and made up like a fugitive from “The Ring” – all lank black hair, ashen limbs, and hollowed-out eyes. 

Jamie Chamberlin (Lucia)
nails the "Mad Scene".
After this exchange and the departure of both handmaid and ghost, the other principal, the equally doomed Edgardo, subject of Lucia’s passion and Enrico’s hate, appears. He was sung by Nathan Granner, tenor, and proved very much an equal partner with Ms Chamberlin in their long love-duet. Both singers really came into their own in the final act, however. 

It was a pity that time constraint necessitated the omission of the first scene of Act 3, where Enrico challenges Edgardo to a duel. This made somewhat precipitate the onset of Lucia’s famous “Mad Scene” at the height of the festivities to “celebrate” her forced marriage to hapless stooge Arturo (William Grundler, tenor, a little thin of voice, maybe designedly so). However, when she appeared (left) at the literal high-point of the set, bloody-robed and holding the dagger with which she has just dispatched her short-lived husband, Ms Chamberlin made the scene equally the real high point vocally and dramatically that it should be. Not the least remarkable aspect was her sotto voce duet with the first flute in the closing moments, voice and instrument in perfect alignment, a tribute not only to singer and player but also to Mr Selya’s baton, holding everything together masterfully. 

Nathan Granner (Edgardo).
After Lucia wafts away amidst the wreckage of the party to die off-stage, accompanied here again by the silent presence of the ghost, the challenge for Mr Granner was considerable in having to refocus the audience’s attention, near the end of a longish evening, on the love-lost Edgardo’s tragic plight. However, he rose to the moment splendidly, though I wonder why the production had his character stabbed by the villainous Normanno rather than his own hand? Maybe this is an alternative tradition in Lucia di Lammermoor performances. 

The opera’s other celebrated high point is Donizetti’s tour-de-force sextet of all the principals apart from Normanno as the extended finale of Act 2. This underlined how beautifully matched all the voices were, with no-one grandstanding but each taking the opportunities for expressivity afforded by the composer (definitely bel canto rather than “can belto”). This scene must be a devil to bring off successfully, with the chorus also needing to be integrated. POP’s not numerous but highly skilled choristers also made the most of their music, and even essayed a bit of Scottish dancing in the scene of marriage celebrations, albeit a little carefully given the shallowness of the stage area. The company should be proud of their achievement, which was enthusiastically applauded and cheered. 


Pacific Opera Project, Forest Lawn, Glendale, 7 p.m., September 17 2017.
Images: Donizetti: Wikimedia Commons; Production photos: Martha Benedict.

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