By R.M. Campbell
When Speight Jenkins, general director of Seattle Opera, was not in his usual seat just prior to the beginning of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” Saturday night at McCaw Hall, there were worries: the soprano had a sore throat, the tenor a bad back, the baritone, a sour stomach. But, as Jenkins quickly explained when he stepped in front of the curtain, he had no bad news. He wanted to dedicate the performance to Joan Sutherland, who died, at 83, Oct. 11 in Switzerland. She was, as anyone who knows anything about music over the past half century, was one of the greatest singers of the 20th century, famous for the beauty and size of her voice, a stupendous technique, creamy legato, evenness of her registers and a vast palette of colors, among her many attributes. It was her performance in “Lucia”, in 1959, at Covent Garden — the first time the opera had been done at the house since 1925 — that catapulted her to the fame, and huge admiration she enjoyed the rest of her life. The soprano made her Metropolitan Opera debut, in 1961, in the title role of “Lucia,” causing a 12-minute ovation at the end of the Mad Scene, according to the New York Times obituary. Five years later she made her debut at Seattle Opera in Delibes’ “Lakme,” returning several times in different roles but never Lucia.
Aleksandra Kursak sang the role Saturday night at McCaw. Not only was she making her house debut but also her debut in the role. The Polish soprano is a determined young woman of considerable talent and calm nerves. Undoubtedly her portrayal will deepen with time, but at the present it is remarkably acute and telling. There is much to admire. She has plenty of technical resources, which are required for the role, and a top that flourishes and blooms. The voice does not have the fullness for which Sutherland was so celebrated but it has amplitude and focus that carried well into the house. She is a small woman which seemed to reinforce Lucia’s frail nature, not only psychologically but physically. The Mad Scene is the high point of the opera, along with some other glorious moments like the sextet. Kurzak made the most of it, not only vocally but theatrically. She did more than descend the stairs, with blood staining her dress, and singing all those vocal flourishes. She actually seemed demented: terrorizing the wedding guests, throwing flowers, brandishing a knife, slashing her wrists, straddling her brother on the floor. All this was done realistically with few hints of melodrama. She joins two other Polish singers who have made memorable appearances in Seattle — Ewa Podles and Mariusz Kwieciwn. Kursak, who has already sung at major houses such as the Met, Hamburg, Covent Garden, La Scala, Vienna State Opera, obviously has a bright future.
Others in the cast had much to offer like William Burden as Edgardo, her lover. Although he looked silly in that costume and hair — a hard thing to do because Burden is an attractive man — he sang well and with passion. The tenor has an appealing voice except when he presses it. Ljubomir Puskaric’s (from Croatia) Edgardo, Lucia’s brother, has a huskiness and depth that is welcome in this heavy-duty character, but there was more vigor than subtlety. Arthur Woodley, as Raimondo, a famiiar face of Seattle Opera, has never sounded better. His voice was big and compelling.
The second set of three singers on Sunday afternoon was proof again that Seattle Opera presents good singers in alternative casts. The Lucia, Davini Rodriguez (from Spain), was excellent. She also has a facile technique, a handsome top and a full-range of dramatic sensibilities. No small thing these virtues. Her Mad Scene was less physically active, more restrained than Kurzak’s but effective nonetheless. She gave a thoroughly satisfying account of the part. Her Edgardo, Scott Piper (from Costa Rica), possesses a handsome voice and passionate lyricism that worked well. Philip Cutlip’s Enrico was strong-minded and dramatically potent.
Singing in all performances are Lindsey Anderson (Alisa), Normanno (Eric Neuville) and Andrew Stenson (Arturo). All are products of Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Program, they acquitted themselves with honor.
Tomer Zvulun (from Israel) made his debut as stage director. For the most part, he is sensible and keeps people moving and relating to one another, although he can fall back on stock gestures when he runs out of ideas. He has interpolated a number of elements, like huge shadows projected on a backdrop (very stirring), and the use of ghosts, also very effective. The last scene is somewhat problematic, not all Zvulun’s responsibility. Even though characters were wandering through the Lammermoor castle in shirtsleeves and thin blouses, now we are in the middle of winter, only hours later, with snow falling and trees lacking leaves. It is a cliche. When the chorus enters, they are dressed in black carrying black umbrellas, a variant of the Humming Chorus from “Madama Butterfly” perhaps? They get rid of them soon enough but it is an awkward moment.
Robert Dahlstrom — what would Seattle Opera, who has designed some 10 of its productions, do without his talent? — designed the huge, multi-layer unit set originally for “I puritani” two years ago. It is not hard to see why it was adapted for “Lucia.” First, money, and second, it works — all those stairs creating multiple levels of playing action. Deborah Trout’s period costumes were generic, workable, predictable, with the occasional odd costume for Lucia.
Another debut: Bruno Cinquegrani in the pit. Pretty much unknown outside his native Italy, the conductor has gift for rhythmic phrases, strong propulsion and sensitivity to singers. Only occasionally were there disagreements between stage and pit, corrected by Sunday afternoon. The orchestra was in generally good shape, except for the French horns, also corrected by Sunday. The famous flute solo, a parallel instrumental line to the soprano in the Mad Scene, was played with great aplomb by Seattle Symphony Orchestra principal flutist Scott Goff, who probably has done every Seattle Opera “Lucia” since the first in 1964. Also to be noted is Valerie Muzzolini Gordon, SSO principal harp. The Seattle Opera Chorus, rehearsed by chorusmaster Beth Kirchoff, had plenty of merit.