Expectations ran high for the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of Donizetti's 1835 tragedy "Lucia di Lammermoor." Not only did the production serve as famed soprano Catherine Malfitano's directorial debut at the Lyric, but it also had to live up to memories of French soprano Natalie Dessay, who triumphed in the title role of the company's previous "Lucia" in 2004.
Let's just say that you win some and you lose some with the Lyric's new "Lucia."
Location: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago, (312) 332-2244, ext. 5600 or lyricopera.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 19, 22, 28, Nov. 1, 5; 2 p.m. Oct. 13 and 16
Running time: Three hours with one intermission
Parking: Area pay garages
Rating: Hints of incest, onstage depiction of a suicide and the aftermath of a crazed murder
For those opera fans who prefer the music values to reign supreme above all else, the Lyric's new "Lucia" will rank as an admirable success. But theatrically, Malfitano's direction of "Lucia" is lacking, thanks to a largely rudimentary staging with awkward choral configurations.
Ryan Opera Center alumna Susanna Phillips was practically note-perfect as the fragile Scottish title heroine who mentally and murderously snaps when forced into a political marriage. True, Phillips didn't have the same psychological intensity that Dessay brought to the role, but she certainly delivered the singing goods, especially in the iconic "Mad Scene" bravely delivered on a perilously curved tower staircase.
Italian tenor Giuseppe Filianoti offered plenty of passionate emotion and ringing singing as Edgardo, Lucia's true love from a rival family. Filianoti had an excellent rival in American baritone Brian Mulligan as Enrico, Lucia's scheming and potentially incestuous brother who forces her hand into marriage (Quinn Kelsey sings the role Nov. 1 and 5).
Other vocal standouts include American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as the stentorian clergyman Raimondo and American tenor Rene Barbera as Lucia's unfortunate husband. In his Lyric debut, conductor Massimo Zanetti offered a solid account of Donizetti's romantic score, only overpowering a few singers in the rumbling opening scene.
Malfitano brings a nice fleetness to the proceedings by cutting out multiple intermissions. She also stages the "Mad Scene" expertly by putting a nearly exclusive focus on the unraveling title character. But overall Malfitano's "Lucia" is a stylistic jumble.
Set designer Wilson Chin serves up a mix of flat scenery (historic Scottish map drop cloths, scraggly pen-and-ink tree drawings) with more dimensional pieces like the massive rotating tower turret. Chin also strangely omits the ghostly fountain that Lucia refers to, though the production's shiny reflective stage floor surface could be symbolically representative of how that accursed fountain emanates misfortune on everyone (lighting designer Duane Schuler skillfully furthers that reflective watery effect).
Malfitano sets her "Lucia" in the Victorian era, giving costume designer Terese Wadden a chance to create nice 19th century outfits and earlier Scottish ones to tie into that era's British romanticization of all things from the Highlands. But Chicago director Mary Zimmerman previously set the same opera in the Victorian era for her 2007 Metropolitan Opera "Lucia" production (seen twice on PBS-TV and in HD movie theater screenings), so it's just another aspect that makes Malfitano's new "Lucia" for the Lyric look like it's a follower instead of an artistic leader.