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Natalie Dessay Giuseppe Filianoti Lucia Di Lammermoor Composer

She shows up, not in the best shape -- vocally quite sound but unprepared in the new  cadenze that had been prepared for her by the leading musicologist in the field, because she couldn't be bothered, frankly. Her visual publicity material had to be carefully -- and discreetly -- retouched by the Met's hype-obsessed publicity department, given the unflattering appearance of the new mother -- who's very much human, thank goodness -- in many of her unretouched stills.

He shows up, a year after his comeback now, after a carefully orchestrated PR offensive meant to reassure everybody in the business that his shares are still a good investment, that Villazon Inc is ready to roll, again.

(On a sidenote: nevermind all the talk about stuff having been transposed down -- it happens with Lucia, and it's immaterial in this case. By the way, Donizetti wrote the mad scene in F major, for example, it was then sung down a full tone, and the first Ricordi edition has it in E major. The traditional crazy coloratura one is accustomed to, in recordings, would have sounded weird to the composer himself. Lucia is not a coloratura role anyway, but we're digressing now).

Then we saw (and heard) what happened on stage.

A performance (by him) that would have been literally booed off the stage of less forgiving houses; everybody and their sister was recording that night, and the cleaner the recording, the worse he sounds (it's often the opposite). Then it's off to two replacements, one of whom has had problems (of a lesser gravity) of his own but can pull the role off thanks to talent, understanding of the linea di canto, better health and sheer good old fashioned Southern Italian force of will.

She's not dazzling, she's OK. You can't photoshop her in a HD livecast but you can dress and light her more carefully than they did back in Russia last month, so she escapes from the ruins almost unscathed -- at least in a place like the Met, where you basically get an ovation for showing up.

Oh, and his second replacement -- we'll see how he goes, but he's certainly good, solid, and in health. He's not a major star. At his age, it's unlikely he'll ever become one, frankly. He's solid, though. Solid, unfortunately, is not the same as big star, solid does not give you "buzz", and "solid, healthy" is fine but it is not the right material to build hype with. And if your opera house's entire (expensive) game plan rests on massive foundations of hype, well, it pretty much sucks.

Speculation now runs rampant, leaks -- more or less accurate -- flow like watered-down cortisone from one side, "she's mad", "she feels cheated". "She hates him". Really? Breakups are always bad, after all (he does know that already, poor sweet kid).

And silence from the other side, after all his career is at stake now, not hers -- it's easier to lose the baby fat and stay away from the cocktails than to heal one's damaged vocal folds.

He then cancels more engagements. Their (dubbed) movie hasn't gone down that well either (after all, "buxom" and "consumptive" aren't usually written about the same performer in the same performance by critics; in this case, sadly, it happened).

Question: how do you go from a 2005 Traviata for the ages (despite what is at the very least lackluster conducting) to this? Only 40 months later?

Answer: nobody -- except the fans -- cares.

The people who should care, well, they're scouting opera houses and auditions in Eastern Europe and South America as we write, looking for the next next big thing -- thinner, hotter, healthier. The new new thing that will finally save opera from oblivion, that will magically attract that elusive new audience, as the old one grows increasingly older and crankier and inevitably more nostalgic.

Some of those kids out there have good voices, too, besides looking good. They do come awfully cheap, when you sign them.

What makes Opera Chic sad is that, at least, actual artists like Di Stefano and Ricciarelli enjoyed a good run, prior to their crashing into the brick wall of the end of their career.

It was certainly longer than 40 months.

"It was a dark and stormy night …." Chuckling whenever I hear these lines, I can see Charles Schultz’s beloved Snoopy staring intensely at his typewriter, vigorously typing away what he would consider his magnum opus novel. Not surprisingly, in countless titanic masterworks of literature and music, the foreboding stormy night setting serves as a metaphor and eloquent dropback for a stormy situation within the drama of the story. Such is the case with Gaetano Donzietti’s epic magnum opus, Lucia di Lammermoor. Set in the mysterious and misty moors of post-Reformation Scotland, this tangled tale – loosely based upon a historical fiction novel by Sir Walter Scott of Ivanhoe fame – revolves around a Romeo and Juliet-like situation in which a young man and woman from feuding families fall in love with tragic results. This past Saturday at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Donzietti’s long-neglected operatic masterpiece now turned repertoire staple was given a fresh facelift which charmed yet never totally wowed me according to my initial expectations.

In this production of Donzietti’s famed and initially-neglected classic, diva turned directress Catherine Malfitano tastefully contemporized this production while maintaining subtle reminders of its historical setting. While the story takes place in the 16th century, this production shifted it 200 years later to the Victorian Era, thus more potently reinforcing the opera’s core message that arranged and forced marriages – often for prestige – rule as priority over a young lady’s sincere desires and best interests. Still, obvious reminders of post-Reformation Scotland lingered, most notably the highly effective, transparent reprint of a 16th-century map of Scotland which served as the production’s curtain between acts. Hence, past and present were tastefully blended with a not-so-confusing result. The sets were highly minimalistic, preferring to rely on lighting effects rather than extravagant backgrounds and props. While I found this ingenious, a more traditional and detailed set would have aesthetically and rhetorically suited this classic opera better. For example, the accursed fountain which from which petrified Lucia receives the ghostly apparition is totally absent from the set – a major glitch that left my mind somewhat bewildered.

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In a similar light, the vocally strong cast enchanted me yet often left me hungering for more character development and depth. Unfortunately, Phillips’ Lucia failed to epically capture the psychological depth of this tragic heroine and her demise. From the start, Phillips exemplified a childlike innocence. I found this touching and appropriate during the first half of the first act, but as the opera progressed into more tragic realms, Phillips failed to fully showcase a traumatized and tormented individual, exploited by her brother’s evil spirit and selfishness. The absence of Lucia’s torment became most obvious during the famed mad scene. Phillips’ Lucia, again maintaining her childlike innocence, appeared more in a state of peaceful ecstasy rather than the extreme madness which has consumed her both vocally and physically. Rather than writhing on the floor, violently lashing out at others, and flashing crazed eyes in the spirit of such great giants as Natalie Dessay, Phillips preferred to remain predominantly stationary, gazing heavenward and affectionately embracing every surrounding object. Similarly, Giuseppe Filianoti as Edgardo beautifully lent his lightly rich tenor voice to the role, but both his voice and body language did not fully demonstrate extreme infatuation and pain at his beloved’s “betrayal.” On the plus side, baritone Brian Mulligan as the evil Enrico proved a formidable and eventually repentant villain complete with his oily and plotting facial grimaces, while Christian van Horne lent a truly gentle and understanding Christian spirit to the role of Raimondo the family minister – who understands the theological meaning of marriage yet secretly sides with Lucia in her agony.

Despite the pitfalls, this Lyric production of Lucia is worthwhile fare for those outside veteran opera-goers. While those deeply familiar with the groundbreaking performances of such giants as Natalie Dessay and Maria Callas will undoubtedly experience major disappointment, audiences outside of this crowd are guaranteed musical and visual delight. Those interested in fine singing and its pedagogy will find delight and technical inspiration in Phillips’ Lucia, while the tamer, more “G-rated” presentation of her character will lend itself better to younger audiences and those new to the wonderful world of opera. In the same light, those interested in contemporary theater and lighting will find this Lyric production most stimulating and ground-breaking in terms of set ingenuity. Finally, with Halloween less than a week away, this eerily thrilling opera – ghosts, omens, murder, and psychological madness included – lends itself perfectly towards fine, non-graphic but satisfyingly chilling holiday fare. So, whether you are a newcomer to opera, a diehard Romeo and Juliet fan seeking a fresh variation on the tale, or a thriller movie fan seeking to trace the history of the modern thriller, head out to the Lyric to experience the thrills and chills of Donzietti’s hallowed masterpiece.