It didn’t take any guessing to figure out that all is not well at Lammermoor Castle in Gaetano Donizetti’s 1835 opera “Lucia di Lammermoor,” which Knoxville Opera presented this weekend at the Tennessee Theatre.
The opening scene is a search for Sir Edgardo (Aaron Short), lord of the neighboring clan at Ravenswood. Lammermoor’s guards are searching the grounds for Edgardo, who they suspect has come to see Lucia (Meryl Dominguez), the sister of Lammermoor’s Lord Enrico Ashton (Michael Adams).
It’s the late 1600s, the period of feuding clans (remember the Capulets and Montagues in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”?). Lucia and Edgardo are in love. While Lucia waits for Edgardo for their secret meeting, she sings one of the opera’s several gorgeous arias, as a duet with the clarinet. A ghost of a young girl who died on the spot appears. Lucia sings to her maid, “I saw her lips moving, as if she were speaking to me” as she waits. Just before Edgardo arrives, she sings, “It seems that when I am near him, heaven opens for me.”
This is also the time of arranged marriages and, as the younger sister of Lord Ashton, Lucia does not get to choose. In his quarters at the beginning of Act II, Ashton sings about how much he worries that his sister refuses to do what he wants.
The problem was, Adams has an irresistible tenor voice that’s difficult to separate from his money-and-power-focused character. On the other hand, it’s equally difficult to not fall in love with Dominguez’s Lucia because her magnetic voice immediately grabs your heart.
That’s the dilemma of period opera. Seen and heard with contemporary eyes and ears, filtered through our modern beliefs about individual rights, the stories can be so dislikable the characters get tossed into the mix.
But there is a tug of war with one’s alliances, especially when the setting and costumes are as sumptuous as this production’s.
Lord Ashton demands that Lucia marry Arturo (Christopher Plaas, whose esoteric tenor voice is off-putting), Lord of Bucklaw, instead, because Arturo is in a position to help Ashton gain favor with the new king. James II has just died, and William III is set to become the new king. Power and position are everything in Lammermoor Castle’s world.
Despite Lucia and Edgardo pledging to marry, it doesn’t take much for Ashton to persuade Lucia to sign the marriage contract.
That’s when things go wrong. The moment the wedding is over, Lucia virtually drags Arturo into their private quarters, only for a scream to be heard almost instantly. (Lucia ends their marriage by stabbing him to death.)
Much of the rest of the story is taken up by the most famous mad scene in all of opera. Lucia reappears covered in blood and wielding a knife. No matter how much he tries, Lammermoor’s chaplain and Lucia’s tutor Raimondo (David Crawford, with a booming voice) can do nothing to calm her.
Dominguez is mesmerizing in her crazed realization of Lucia. Her singing is stunning, to the point that the closing scene of Edgardo arriving and killing himself so he can be with her in heaven is anticlimactic.
Not to be lost in this production is stage director Brian Deedrick’s great skill at getting the entire cast of characters and the always wonderful KO chorus on stage as wedding guests without it seeming like a mob. Chorus director Don Townsend is the indispensable essence of Knoxville Opera.
Also deserving notice is lighting designer John Horner, who is brilliant in his perfect lighting schemes, which add significantly to the drama, especially the presence of the ghost, who was, unfortunately, unidentified in the playbill. Her skill at moving backward, up steps and ledges was breathtaking.
Information about Knoxville Opera’s upcoming productions, including the 18th Annual Rossini Festival International Street Fair, can be found here.