There are moments when the natural world and the dramatic outdoor location — on a hill in Forest Lawn Memorial Park — align with the action onstage and deepen the morbid mood of Pacific Opera Project’s production of the tragic opera Lucia di Lammermoor. At such times, it's possible to believe that the doomed titular heroine Lucia (portrayed on Sunday by soprano Bevin Hill) and her similarly imperiled lover, Edgardo (tenor Nathan Granner), really are in early–18th century Scotland as they clamber up the steps of the bare-bones stage set and hurl their voices into the breeze from atop the parapet of a faux-stone castle.
When the sun slowly sets over the sprawling cemetery, the lights of Glendale far down the hill begin to shimmer and simmer like a valley filled with exotic gold and silver jewels. Unfortunately, these sorts of natural elements and visual wonders don't always compensate for the sometimes unnatural acting in POP’s uneven production.
As led by artistic director Josh Shaw, the local company’s usual métier is to take a classic opera and irreverently change the libretto or ruthlessly doctor the translated subtitles to create marvelously witty, fast-paced parodies that are balanced with generally high-level singing. Such operatic comedy isn’t easy to pull off — just ask the folks at Long Beach Opera, who earlier this year strayed from their usual mission of mounting experimental, arty and often somber modern operas by staging, in collaboration with Culture Clash, a toothless remake of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen that drearily fell flat.
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Conversely, in this production at least, some of the cast members struggle with dramatic commitment to their characters. Part of the problem is that POP is competing with relatively recent memories of L.A. Opera’s nearly definitive version of composer Gaetano Donizetti and librettist Salvadore Cammarano’s Italian-language opera in 2014. Not only did L.A. Opera’s bigger-budget presentation of Lucia benefit from a stark but convincingly eerie stage set and a much larger orchestra that gave full force to Donizetti’s beguiling melodies, the production featured the astonishing Russian coloratura soprano Albina Shagimuratova in the title role. The producers also went to the expense of flying in French instrumentalist Thomas Bloch to perform some of those melodies on the rarely heard glass harmonica, as Donizetti originally intended.
This was crucial, because when Shagimuratova’s Lucia goes insane on her wedding night after stabbing the husband she was forced to marry instead of Edgardo, her madcap laughter and chillingly haunted vocals are intertwined with the watery echoes of glass harmonica to heighten the feeling of dread. Shagimuratova’s portrayal was scarifying and intense, whereas POP’s Hill comes off as merely sweet and mildly bewildered.
Other performances in this version do stand out, in particular lyric bass-baritone Nicholas Boragno’s brooding presence as Raimondo, baritone Daniel Scofield as Lucia’s deceitful brother Enrico, and Granner, whose Edgardo takes on heroic stature in Act 3. As conducted by Isaac Selya, a small and sometimes wan chamber ensemble gamely tries to overcome the ambient interruptions of helicopters and the sounds of traffic and train whistles floating up from the city below.
Forest Lawn Memorial Park, 1712 S. Glendale Ave., Glendale; Fri.-Sun., Sept. 15-17, 7 p.m.; $25-$150. pacificoperaproject.com.