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Lucia Catches Fire with Stirring Performances

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
10/12/1999 -  and 15, 17*, 21, 23, 24, 26, 29 and 30, October and 3 and 6 November, 1999
Gaetano Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor
Ruth Ann Swenson/Tracy Dahl/Noelle Richardson (Lucia), Ramon Vargas/Tito Beltran (Edgardo), Anthony Michaels-Moore/Christopher Robertson (Enrico), Reinhard Hagen/Sorin Coliban/John Reylea (Raimundo), Todd Greer (Normanno), Elena Bocharova (Alisa), Norman Shankle (Arturo)
Orchestra and Chorus of the San Francisco Opera, Richard Bonynge (Conductor)
Sandra Bernhard (Stage Director)

After a brief absence, Donizettiís perennial favorite, Lucia di Lammermoor made a return to the San Francisco Opera in an extended run and multiple casts. Tracy Dahl first took over three of the four performances originally slated with Christine Schaeffer. Then when Ruth Ann Swenson came down with an illness, Dahl stepped in and took over the first four of her performances as well.
The production was also the occasion of the company debut for tenor Ramon Vargas, the sensational young Mexican tenor (though he actually ended up making his debut earlier in the season as Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera).
Gerard Howlandís production, in which Swenson appeared when it was new a few years ago, is a one-gimmick concept, that of a "wormís eye view" of the courtyard with stone walls in sharp perspective ringing a rectangle of sky. After creating a striking initial image, it soon becomes trite. Fortunately director Sandra Bernhard and lighting designer Robert Hill conspired to keep the focus away from the set and were, on the whole, successful.
Richard Bonynge may not rank among the centuries great conductors, but he know the score of Lucia as well as any and paces it superbly. He also, as a singerís conductor, knows how to hold back to orchestra to allow the singers to be heard without forcing and breath and phrase without indulging.
Dahl made a compelling Lucia, using her petite frame to convey the girlís vulnerability but giving her plenty of fire and passion. Hers was not a passive victim of circumstances but a active, if unsuccessful rebel. Dahl is a convincing actress, at her best in the interactions between Lucia and the men in her life. In the scene between Lucia and Enrico that opens the second act (the opera was performed in three acts) her combination of dramatic intensity and vocal purity made for an exciting and deeply moving scene culminating in her heart-breaking recognition of her inability to withstand her brotherís insistence on an unwanted marriage.
In her mad scene, Dahl maintained the necessary focus, but without another character to play against, her intensity varied. Aside from an occasional a smudged note in the rapid runs, Dahlís coloratura was exemplary, her top bright and easy and her sensitivity to the text most welcome.
Vargas was an equally ardent, winning performer as Edgardo. His acting gifts may not be as distinguished as Dahlís but he made Edgardo sympathetic and appealing. And vocally he was nothing short of superb. A warm Italianate sound, patrician phrasing, a seamless, legato of molten gold and a pure, ringing top were all part of his arsenal and he used them all with intelligence and musicianship.
Anthony Michaels-Moore sounded as if he was not quite warmed up when the evening started, his solid, if dry baritone scratchy and pushed. By the second act he was in better voice and what ever his vocal short comings, he is a striking actor, making the most of his scene with Lucia. Together they struck sparks that ignited the production.
Reinhard Hagenís Raimondo was on the youthful side, but the singer wisely resisted any attempt to darken or weighten his voice artificially, singing instead with a firm, clear tone that easily encompassed the roleís demands. His sympathetic portrayal added to the warmth and humanity of the production.
Norman Shankel had another shining moment as Arturo, but both Todd Greer and Elena Bocharova as Normanno and Alisa, respectively, sounded over parted in their small but important roles.
With an emphasis on vocal and dramatic values, this revival of Lucia di Lammermoor justified the longer-than-usual run and provided San Francisco audiences a welcome opportunity to enjoy the notably fine performances by Dahl and Vargas.

Kelly Snyder



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