New general manager Peter Gelb’s move to bring acclaimed stage and film directors to the Metropolitan Opera has been just what this company needed. Last season saw Bartlett Sher’s sprightly, sexy “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” and Anthony Minghella’s revelatory “Madama Butterfly.” Opening the 2007-08 season, Chicago-based legit helmer Mary Zimmerman (“Metamorphoses”) makes her house debut with “Lucia di Lammermoor” in an unconventional yet strikingly effective production blessed with a cast of superb singing actors.
Simultaneously shown on closed-circuit television to a packed crowd outside on Lincoln Center Plaza and further downtown in Times Square, this event made the Metropolitan Opera the cultural nexus of New York City, at least for one night. Subsequent performances are bound to be among the season’s hottest tickets.
Zimmerman’s affinity for myth, legend and history made her the right fit for this tragic tale of a Scottish girl from a noble family, forced by her manipulative brother to abandon her true love and marry another man. On her wedding night, Lucy stabs her bridegroom, which leads to the most famous of all operatic Mad Scenes.
Zimmerman has transposed the action from the close of the 16th century to the latter half of the 19th, making the story feel disturbingly nearer our time and also suggesting the collapsing British Empire through a depiction of a mind, a family and a social system falling into ruin.
The director brought with her a team of her most frequent creative collaborators — set designer Daniel Ostling, costumer Mara Blumenfeld and lighting designer T.J. Gerckens — to develop a production that makes full, sumptuous use of the Met’s considerable resources yet does not overwhelm the intimacy of the action. Most telling is the staging of the famous Sextet — the opera’s emotional high point — which takes place here during the setup of a forced wedding-party photograph, climaxing in the sudden flare of a Victorian-era flashbulb.
Natalie Dessay triumphs in the title role. A quicksilver-voiced coloratura soprano who started out as an actress, not a singer, she brings a visceral depth to the part not likely seen or heard since the days of Callas. Dessay has suffered two recent vocal crises, and though her voice may not be as purely beautiful as it once was, it still possesses a uniquely appealing timbre that responds to all manner of dynamics and coloration. She even interpolated a blood-curdling scream into her Mad Scene that may not have pleased purists but made complete dramatic sense in its context.
Marcello Giordani, as her lover Edgardo, began the opening-night perf roughly but tamed his wiry tenor as he went on. Not a particularly subtle singer, Giordani often tends to shout as if he were belting out “The Star Spangled Banner” in Yankee Stadium. There’s much of that here, but under Zimmerman’s direction, he offers a convincing portrayal of a betrayed, hopeless hero.
Lucia’s venal brother Enrico is sung by superb Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, whose incisive acting skills, rich voice and attractive presence have turned him into a bit of a matinee idol among opera buffs. Bass John Relyea infuses the dullish role of Lucia’s tutor Raimondo with his handsome, granitic sound, and his lanky height made him a figure of noble and powerful bearing. In the small role of Lucia’s short-lived husband, debutant Stephen Costello leaves a warm impression with his clear, pleasing tenor.
James Levine conducts the production with such a firm hand, one might assume he’d had a lifetime of experience with this operatic warhorse. He hasn’t. This was his first “Lucia” ever.