You had better come properly equipped for this season's Washington Opera opener -- Donizetti's mesmerizing Lucia Di Lammermoor. You'll want lumbar support, breath mints, and an aqualung. This is serious, take-no-prisoners opera with no concessions to the curious, the uninitiated or the cowardly.
Director Marthe Keller, known for her work as a screen actress, makes her leap to the world of opera with only the slightest of missteps: she cannot quite convince brilliant soprano Elizabeth Futral to put Lucia before Elizabeth. But more on that later.
Donizetti's dark and rocky tale plows its way through myriad classically operatic tragic twists: ill-fated but frantically passionate love, power-grabbing greed, ancestral feuding and vengeance, unwitting betrayal, insane death, and lovelorn death. In short, everything but the kitchen sink. But in the hands of the astute Keller, a highly attuned and professional cast, and the powerful and well-paced musical direction of conductor Emmanuel Villaume, Lucia Di Lammermoor carries us through action and lugubrious interlude alike, without ever letting the mood or intensity unravel.
Tenor Alfredo Portilla brings a fine voice and strong sensibility to his role as Lucia's forbidden love. He parries well emotionally with his nemesis Enrico, Lucia's power-crazed brother, as sung by Franck Ferrari (in a shared role). However, Portilla is not quite a match for the ever-so-larger-than-life Futral, who has a technically well-accomplished voice with lovely tone and control (except for a tendency to go too loud in the higher registers). But she alienates herself from her peers and her role with an inability to subdue the star-shine. She is great but she cannot hide the fact that she knows it -- it's a fatal dramatic flaw.
Futral's self-consciousness is typified by her hand gestures which return again and again to "offer" her breasts in emotional supplication. It's a very effective dramatic tool when used sparingly, but the body-conscious Futral just won't let us forget that comely bosom! Luckily, the overall production is so exquisite, the egoisms of the superb soprano can be forgiven. Lucia Di Lammermoor will submerge you in some very dark emotional waters -- so do bring that aqualung.
By contrast, this season's second production, Puccini's crowd-pleaser La Boheme, seems like a student production -- which in some regards it is. All but one role will be shared throughout the run with the idea of showcasing young talent. The production has much heart, but it simply lacks the polish and rhythm of a well-honed production. Still, if you hanker like an addict for those heart-bursting strains of Puccini melancholia, conductor Giovanni Reggioli will oblige.
The main weaknesses here exist in the ensemble scenes: crowded and fussy choreography in the garret mixed with voices unable to carry over the orchestra make for several confused acts. There is just too much moving about of a lot of redundant props. Table in, table out, table moved all about. One wants to shout: “Stop fumbling and try to sing it -- save the stage craft for a later rehearsal!” The bottom line is, for many of these scenes, unless you know La Boheme by heart (and of course, many do), you will be a slave to the subtitles, even if you speak fluent Italian.
Soprano Virginia Tola as the consumptive heroine Mimi exudes a sweet and believable presence, but struggles with her vocal control until the very end of the opera when she really comes into her own and her high notes dramatically improve. Unfortunately, tenor Konstyantyn Andreyev can do nothing about his intense vibrato and his inability to be heard over the orchestra. He is also strangely unsure of himself as Rodolfo, Mimi's soul-mate. Every time Mimi falters with faint, Rodolfo waits a good beat or two before "rushing" to her aid. He's also too eager to turn his back on us and busy himself, as if shy of the spotlight. If anyone else is on the stage, it's easy to forget Rodolfo is there, hence creating an unresolved dramatic vacuum.
This La Boheme is wanting. Though it must be said, the cast does come together to some degree in Mimi's final scene. But it's too little, too late. If you must get your Puccini fix, then by all means go. But if you have a fine recording at home, consider stay home and listen to that instead.
Lucia plays in the Kennedy Center Opera House September 26, 29, October 2, 4 and 5. La Boheme plays September 28, 30 and October 1, 3 and twice on October 6. For ticket information, call (202) 295-2400 or go to firstname.lastname@example.org.