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An Absentee Lucia

Photo by Ken Howard
POOR, SWEET, PUT-UPON LUCIA OF LAMMERMOOR. BOTH the opera and its heroine have been far more sinned against than sinning, burdened with evils of the spirit and flesh. The debatable notion prevails here and there in opera-buffdom that underneath Donizetti's fragile, romantic weeper there bubble deep psychological currents that call for prodigies of a producer's invention. Memories of the L.A. Opera's 1993 version persist, with June Anderson climbing the outsides of buildings and Andrei Serban's stage cluttered with dancing slabs of scenery. Earlier that season I had stumbled upon the Metropolitan Opera's new production, the Francesca Zambello number with the coffins that was booed and lasted only one season. (I hear from New York that the Met's latest Lucia also had the critics recycling the adjectives -- "abominable," for one -- that had served them well seven years before.)

Jonathan Alver's production currently at the Music Center, brought up from Opera New Zealand, imposes on neither patience nor credulity; it looks the way it sounds. That way is full of artifice and hokum, but I wasn't disturbed until the Mad Scene, which had the chorus cavorting around the forlorn Lucia and eventually massed into a Hi-De-Ho formation like an MGM minstrel show, and the ending, which had the saintly Scottish Presbyterians assembled in a churchyard backed by a projected fiery-red cloudscape straight from hell.

Sumi Jo, pretty and graceful, has no business singing Lucia at this stage in her career, if her fuzzy, unfocused and painfully out-of-tune first-night performance means anything. Worse, you never had the feeling that she owned the stage, and without an inadequate Lucia there's no Lucia. Her Edgardo, Frank Lopardo, yelled a lot, but at least did so in tune. Gino Quilico's Enrico also had its shrill moments, but he is an exciting young singer new to the company, and his work endowed the opera. There was certainly no stability in the flabby conducting of Richard Bonynge: the sad spectacle of a onetime expert follower (of his now-retired ex-wife, Joan Sutherland) now with nobody to follow.

IT IS 13 SEASONS SINCE THE CURTAIN FIRST ROSE (SHAKILY, if you remember) on the newborn Los Angeles Opera. By managerial standards -- the kind expressed in dollars and cents, red and black ink -- the company is fabulously successful. It has won an enviable place in the community, serving young and minority audiences with valuable educational programs. Once a season, on the average, it comes up with an event that draws press and opera honchos from out of town to add to the local luster. Occasionally it justifies all that junketing with something operatically worthwhile: the '97 season's Return of Ulysses, for example. Sometimes it doesn't; I can't think of a more flagrant fiasco in all Operaland, in terms of pre-performance hype vs. abject final product, than last December's Fantastic Mr. Fox. In this past season I would have proudly escorted a discriminating out-of-town visitor to only one of the eight productions, the revival of the Jonathan Miller/Robert Israel Don Giovanni. When that production was new, in October 1991, it shared a season with Berlioz's Les Troyens, the world premiere of Sallinen's Kullervo, and Britten's Albert Herring, along with a couple of more standard crowd-pleasers. This year it shone its single light in the gray morass of the tried-and-true along with the never-should-have-been.

In the days when he used to meet regularly with the musical press -- as he hasn't now for over a year (nor would I in his tromped-on shoes) -- Peter Hemmings was quite open about the reason for the company's regression from the adventurous to the safe and familiar: his need to put the most well-heeled of his patrons at their ease. He tended to sidestep the fact that the company's clear claim to success was already established in the years of Wozzeck, The Fiery Angel and Katya Kabanova. You can't refute his motivation, even as the ranks of elderly, well-heeled devotees of Madama Butterfly grow ever thinner. The Philharmonic, by the way, under its former and its present management, refutes it very well. But operas cost more to produce than symphony concerts.

From the start, the company has projected a bifurcated, self-contradictory image. Operating in a 3,100-seat luxury venue, it was obliged to affect the air of a grand-opera company on a level with the Met, Chicago and San Francisco. Its roster was anchored on one supernova, Plácido Domingo (as he sounded in 1986), who went on to serve the company on a semiresident basis and soon -- with prospects one may justifiably question -- assumes leadership. Around Domingo at the start were a few other luminaries who welcomed the chance to practice new repertory in the boonies (just kidding, folks) before taking it to the real world: Maria Ewing, for one; Carol Vaness, with lesser success -- and whatever happened to Carol Neblett? At the same time, the company came on as a mirror of the best qualities in the New York City Opera: a unit of young singers enlisted in on-the-job training, working their way up if they had the stuff, or out if they didn't. If you heard Richard Bernstein's Figaro at the Met, or Rodney Gilfry sing the opening exhortation in the finale of Beethoven's Ninth with the visiting Brits at Costa Mesa last week, you were in the presence of careers in full blossom whose roots reached back to their time at the Music Center. (Gilfry was the Herald in Otello on that fateful opening night in 1986.)

Somewhere along the line, the images blurred. The typical L.A. Opera night seems compounded of a sure-fire high-style opera inadequately cast, tentatively staged and, as often as not, indifferently conducted: this season's Carmen, Falstaff and La Traviata as prime examples. Can we expect better from next season's Rigoletto, Faust or La Rondine?

It's not my place to answer that question -- yet. Next season also offers our first-ever Billy Budd, an authentic masterpiece; a return of the delectable production of The Elixir of Love; The Capulets and the Montagues, Bellini's curious gloss on the R&J script; Hansel and Gretel, which in the realm of kiddie opera looms over Mr. Fox like Tristan und Isolde -- and, for starters, Samson et Dalila. That one is sure to bring down the house.


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