Sunday, March 11, 2012

"Without A Single Interesting Syncopation"

Last night, my parents, my sister-in-law, and Joshua and I attended Minnesota Opera’s presentation of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”. Last night’s performance was the final performance of the Minnesota Opera run (there were five performances in all).

“Lucia di Lammermoor”, composed in 1835, achieved worldwide popularity within a year or two of its premiere in Naples. The opera held its popularity for twenty years, but—outside Italy and the United States—“Lucia” was to be driven from the stage by Verdi’s trio of popular operas unveiled in the early 1850s: “Il Trovatore”, “Rigoletto” and “La Traviata”. “Lucia” has never since been performed with any constancy outside Italy and North America.

Since the 1850s, “Lucia” has been treated as mere curiosity by the opera houses of Central Europe, Eastern Europe, Russia, Scandinavia and France. The opera is seldom revived in those countries, and seldom granted major stagings with major artists.

When Arturo Toscanini took La Scala to Berlin for a series of guest performances in 1929, one of the La Scala productions presented in Berlin was “Lucia”.

The Berlin reception was wicked. Audiences, critics, musicians: all laughed at the score. Conductors Wilhelm Furtwangler, Erich Kleiber, Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter all noted, publicly, that the score was not worth the time of major musicians. (A young Herbert Von Karajan also attended those performances, and held a different view.)

And yet “Lucia”, given little respect elsewhere, has remained unaccountably popular in North America for generations. It has been a mainstay of the Metropolitan Opera since the company was founded in 1883. “Lucia” has received three new productions at the Met within the last two decades alone, a mystifying state of affairs that, for many, proves the complete lack of seriousness governing activities at the Metropolitan Opera. “Lucia” is presented constantly by America’s regional companies large and small.

I have no idea what accounts for the popularity of the opera in the United States. “Lucia” is the most over-produced trifle in the history of opera presentation in America. It is the “La Favorita” of my native land. (Donizetti’s “La Favorita”, inexplicably, was granted 660 performances at the Paris Opera between 1840 and 1897—although “La Favorita”, to its credit, has a much richer score than “Lucia”.)

Other English-speaking countries have never devoted a fraction of the attention to “Lucia” that the U.S. has accorded the opera. The annals of Covent Garden reveal a tiny number of “Lucia” performances compared to the swollen “Lucia” figures of the Metropolitan Opera. (“Lucia” went unperformed at The Royal Opera House between 1925 and 1959; it was not revived even for Maria Callas.)

Only one major non-Italian conductor has touched the score of “Lucia”: Karajan—and Karajan touched the score only because of Callas (and Karajan was never again to conduct “Lucia” after his handful of legendary performances with Callas in 1955).

Eminent Italian conductors born in the 20th Century have largely ignored “Lucia”. Carlo Maria Giulini never conducted the score. Claudio Abbado and Riccardo Muti each gave a single series of performances of the opera while serving as Music Director of La Scala. “Lucia” never entered the repertory of Giuseppe Sinopoli. Riccardo Chailly and Daniele Gatti have never gone near the piece.

The roots of early Verdi lie in Donizetti’s dramas, yet “Lucia” is no more a satisfying score than Verdi’s early efforts. The melodies and harmonies of “Lucia” are insipid; there is not an ounce of rhythmic life in the music. One listens, stultified, for almost three hours, waiting in vain for some interesting music to appear.

Was it not Furtwangler who acidly described “Lucia” as “a genuine marvel—the only score I know that uses only I-IV-V chords”? And was it not Klemperer who referred to the score of “Lucia” as “the only extended piece of music written without a single interesting syncopation”?

I managed to get through last night’s performance (which, happily, was trimmed). I cannot say I actually enjoyed it—but I survived the evening.

The Minnesota Opera Lucia was American soprano Susanna Phillips, who is in the early stages of what many hope will be a major career. (Phillips is featured in the February 29 issue of Vogue.)

Phillips sang the role well if not brilliantly. She sang the coloratura cleanly, which is not nothing, and she offered a creditable portrayal of the role.

Phillips portrayed Lucia as a young woman, and not as grand tragedienne (all to the good in my book). What was missing was a command of the Italian tongue and an Italianate shaping of musical phrases—as well as individuality and stage presence.

There was no sacred flame seen to be burning within Phillips. All night, it was clear, amid all the stage trappings, that Phillips was nothing more than a nice young American woman from Huntsville, Alabama, going through the motions of singing and acting a difficult opera role. One wanted to take her out for coffee afterwards and compliment her on her fine effort—whereas a great Lucia would have sent the audience home deeply moved if not shaken.

The production did not assist Phillips in her work.

The current “Lucia” production was first unveiled by Minnesota Opera in 2001. Constructed in the Twin Cities, the physical production was originally a co-production of Minnesota Opera, New York City Opera, Opera Colorado, Pittsburgh Opera and Houston Grand Opera. After those five companies had presented the production, it was put up for rental, and used by countless other companies throughout North America (the production most recently appeared in Toronto last autumn, when it was part of Canadian Opera Company’s current season).

All told, the production has been seen in twenty-five different locales, if the information I have been given is accurate—which signifies that, over the past eleven years, twenty-five different cities have seen a conspicuously-lousy production of “Lucia di Lammermoor”.

The sets are ugly and cheap-looking (according to my parents, the sets were just as ugly and cheap-looking on the first go-around eleven years ago) and do not contribute to the drama.

Last night’s stage direction was eyeball-rolling, as bad as anything I have ever seen. It was hard to suppress giggles.

When this “Lucia” production first hit New York in early 2003, Peter G. Davis, writing in New York magazine, had the following to say:

This misconceived “Lucia”, a shared production with four other American companies that’s destined for a long life, shows today’s operatic consortium system at its very worst.

When Davis wrote those words nine years ago, I doubt that he had any idea how gruesomely long-lived this particular production would actually prove to be. It has now been seen everywhere, invariably to dismissive reviews—and yet the production, incomprehensibly, continues to live on.

There is something wrong with opera presentation in America. The designs for this “Lucia” production should never have been approved back in 2001. The original director should have been replaced in the very first week of rehearsals. If intelligent persons were running opera companies, this production would have been scrapped at any one of countless stages during the pre-production process—and, once unveiled, the production would never have been actively sought by other companies. That claptrap like this “Lucia” is presented the length and breadth of this country for well over a decade speaks volumes about the quality of personnel in charge of America’s opera companies.

The production’s original director, James Robinson, returned to the Twin Cities to direct the current “Lucia” revival, once again lending his personal imprimatur to the production.

Robinson is one of those weird figures no one can figure out. Robinson has no talent for stage direction, he is never engaged to direct legitimate theater or musical theater, he has no European career, he is ignored by America’s largest opera companies.

How does this man continue to get work?

According to his management firm, Robinson “is considered the most widely-performed director of opera in North America.”

Tellingly, that statement says far more about America’s opera companies than it does about Robinson.

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