NJ Festival Orchestra underscores the dark drama of ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’

lucia di lammermoor review


Alejandra Sandoval as Lucia in New Jersey Festival Orchestra’s production of “Lucia di Lammermoor,” with Valerian Ruminski as Raimondo in the background.

The fog was as thick as pea soup, which was exactly the effect that director Beth Greenberg was aiming for in her new staging of Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.” The atmospheric, minimalist production was presented by New Jersey Festival Orchestra on Feb. 17 at Renaissance Church in Springfield with maestro David Wroe and guest vocalists.

Donizetti’s 1835 tragic opera packs all the suspense and deceit of a film noir thriller. In a nutshell, a young girl, forced into marriage, goes insane and kills herself. The Italian libretto by Salvadore Cammarano is loosely based on the 1819 novel by Sir Walter Scott, “The Bride of Lammermoor,” set in the Lammermoor Hills of Scotland in the 17th century. Similar to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” it follows a young heroine caught in a bloody family feud.

“This wasn’t the time to build big sets of castles out of Scotland,” Greenberg said, after I pulled her aside on opening night to ask about her essential vision. (NJFO artists mingle with concertgoers in the foyer during intermission and after the show.)


Alejandra Sandoval as Lucia and Benjamin Werley as Edgardo in “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

“Everything has been pared down … everything is very abstract,” she continued. ” ‘Lucia’ is such an iconic piece and you always have Lucia with the bloody dress and the sword, and I wanted it the other way around: a very tight, suspenseful thriller focused on the main characters and the story.”

The narrative-driven approach cut back on the opera’s familiar iconography. “The libretto is so swift and sharp,” Greenberg said. “Every word has meaning.” Props included the love letters and the marriage contract, and not much more.

The tone, mood and style were inspired by the classic era of film noir of the 1940s and ’50s (Greenberg cited ‘Casablanca’ as one of her favorites) with dramatic lighting (by Natasha Rotondaro) and expressive visual compositions made through strong shadow play. Scottish Highlands landscapes were suggested through the use of thick fog.

“I’m always interested in creating atmosphere,” Greenberg said, “so I was thinking about the moors — very misty and foggy and shadowy — and ‘Lucia’ is a very dark, shadowy story in my mind. When there’s atmosphere, the audience can use their imagination and think what they want, and get really involved in the story.”

Greenberg has worked with large opera theaters like New York City Opera, among others. Working with NJFO, she aimed for a production that was in proportion to a relatively small company with a fairly limited performance budget. The Westfield-based orchestra, which is now in its 41st season and has been led by music director Wroe for more than 25 years, stages all types of repertoire, from opera to lighter symphonic fare.

Action was updated from the libretto’s mid-19th century to present day. Traditional Scottish tartans were swapped for stylish but gritty costumes styled by Kindall Almond. Men wore dark trench coats and peacoats, and formalwear for the wedding scene. Lucia wore a utilitarian blue cotton shirt dress and the iconic wedding gown with a veil.


SeungHyeon Baek as Enrico, with Alejandra Sandoval and Valerian Ruminski in “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

The plot revolves around star-crossed lovers Lucia Ashton and Edgardo Ravenswood, and their dramatic family feud. Lucia’s brother Enrico manipulates her into marrying wealthy nobleman Arturo to salvage their family’s fortune. On the night of the wedding, Lucia, overwhelmed by anguish and despair, kills Arturo and descends into madness during the famous mad scene. Edgardo returns to find Lucia dead and takes his own life, unable to endure the pain of losing her.

Even though Lucia is the title character, the story emphasizes the men in her life and the suffering she endures in a male-dominated world.

Opera directors love to sink their teeth into these timeless themes and play them up with sensationalism. Some companies even give warnings about the subject matter, which includes mental illness, patriarchal abuse, forced marriage, murder and suicide. Greenberg recognized the challenging themes but didn’t make any broad statements or put forth any agendas. She said that despite the oppression, Lucia finds small moments of resilience and strength, ultimately taking drastic action to end a marriage she doesn’t want.

Touches of toxic masculinity were shown through Enrico, sung by SeungHyeon Baek. He combined all the villainous qualities for the role — manipulative, ambitious, calculating and cold — exemplified by the rageful “La pietade in suo favore” vengeance cabaletta sung in a rich baritone with powerful projection. After demanding that Lucia marry Arturo, he grabbed her by the arm and threw her to the floor.

Though the opera was fully staged, the libretto was trimmed down with all the traditional cuts plus additional pruning of some duets. Chorus was liberally cut and distilled into two male singers, lyric tenor Christos Harakas and bass-baritone Michael Alworth. Pianist Yifei Xu (NJFO’s operations manager) played a convivial wedding guest in a supernumerary role.

Tenor Chad Kranak, a graceful lirico spinto with elegant phrasing, was double cast as the well-mannered and courteous nobleman, Arturo, and the scheming Normanno, the captain of Enrico’s guard and forger of letters. Alyce Daubenspeck sang Lucia’s doting companion Alisa in a gleaming, sweet mezzo.


From left, Yifei Xu, Chad Kranak, Alyce Daubenspeck, Michael Alworth_and Alejandra Sandoval in “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

Though the story was streamlined, the dramatic urgency was intact.

Donizetti was at his peak with “Lucia,” a quintessential example of the bel canto style of 19th century Italian opera that features elaborate melodies, and expressive and ornamented vocal lines. Pyrotechnic trills, runs and cadenzas are abundant in this repertoire, typified in Lucia’s mad scene, which is set to music that captures her fragile mental state and downward spiral.

It is a tour de force for Lucia, sung here in confident coloratura by soprano Alejandra Sandoval. Appearing as a corpse-like bride, Sandoval paced herself well from the “Il dolce suono” recitative to the “Spargi d’amaro pianto” cabaletta, and reached all the embellishments of the higher registers in clean, precise tonalities. Darker, dramatic timbres were used sparingly and fittingly.

While directors often stage the mad scene with Lucia’s gown soaked in Arturo’s blood, it was merely a suggestion here, created with red flood lights and a red robe worn over the bridal gown.

Edgardo, sung by tenor Benjamin Werley, was given a tidy, bloodless death by stabbing himself with his back to the audience. He had all the warmth and conviction needed for the tragic hero. His “Verranno a te sull’aure” rendezvous love duet with Sandoval was expressive and passionate. He showed glimpses of heavier, heroic shades and legato phrasing in his Act III marathon, ending with “Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali,” sung after Raimondo tells him Lucia is dead.

David Wroe and New Jersey Festival Orchestra members.

Basso cantante Valerian Ruminski brought a sense of morality and gravitas to the ensemble as the chaplain Raimondo, singing in a rich, silky timbre with darkly romantic shades. After informing the wedding guests that Lucia had gone mad and killed Arturo, he let out a little cry of anguish with heartfelt emotion.

The symphonic ensemble was reduced to about 15 musicians. (I heard a reduction of around 35 musicians at NJFO’s “Summertime Folk Fantasies” concert last season, but depending on the program, they can field up to 70).

Wroe’s interpretation was sweet and melodic, which provided a nice counterbalance to the sparse aesthetic of the production. Musical ideas were robust and decisive, and tempos were taken at a brisk clip.

Accompaniment for the famous sextet “Chi mi frena in tal momento” was precise, with delicate restraint and clean shaping. The showstopping moment reveals Lucia’s forced marriage through overlapping vocal lines and intricate harmonies to reflect the inner turmoil and conflict among the characters.

First violinist Byung-Kook Kwak shaped Donizetti’s harmonies through expressive, intricate and colorful forms. Harpist Fran Duffy led an emotive harp solo to introduce Lucia at the fountain. Brass and woodwinds provided rich and dusky shades. Music-making, like the production, was small but mighty.

For more on New Jersey Festival Orchestra, visit njfestivalorchestra.org.

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