Blood is thicker than water, of course, but in L.A. Opera's new production of Gaetano Donizetti's eternally tempestuous Lucia di Lammermoor, water becomes a key element – a soothing contrast and an almost sentient accompaniment – as the title character descends into unrestrained madness.

Based on the stabbing of David Dunbar by his not-so-blushing bride, Janet Dalrymple, in Scotland in 1669, Sir Walter Scott's novel The Bride of Lammermoor came out in 1819 and subsequently inspired Salvadore Cammarano's libretto to Donizetti's opera, which debuted in Naples in 1835.

In the opera, which runs March 15-April 6, blood ties thicken when Lucia is tricked by her financially desperate brother, Enrico, into marrying Arturo, even though she secretly loves the family's rival, Edgardo.As with Romeo and Juliet (and practically every episode of Three's Company), it's one tragic case of bad timing and misunderstood intentions after another until just about everybody goes mad and dies, starting with Lucia's infamous filleting of Arturo on their wedding night.


What elevates this bloody spectacle to a level of transcendent art is Donizetti's music, as when Lucia is in rapture over fleeting true love or ruefully tracing the fragile outlines of her ensuing despair.

At rehearsals last week at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, several components of the complex production of Lucia were coming together to form one fantastic jigsaw puzzle. Downstairs in the cavernous theater, crew members moved heavy equipment around a long, sloped stage, although there wasn't yet much to see because the production's visuals will be conjured up later via scenic designer Wendall K. Harrington's projections.

Upstairs in a rehearsal room, conductor James Conlon adjudicated the music's tempo with a pianist, while director Elkhanah Pulitzer worked out stage positions with sopranos D'Ana Lombard, who plays Lucia's confidante, Alisa, and Amanda Woodbury. Even at half volume, Woodbury's and Lombard's voices cycled upward effortlessly and airily like feathers in an updraft – simultaneously powerful and delicate. Woodbury was covering for the show's star, coloratura soprano Albina Shagimuratova, who was in Milan finishing a stint in the role at La Scala, where she reportedly was the first Russian to depict Lucia in that storied Italian venue.

While Lombard tried to attach a 10-foot-long sheer pink scarf to Woodbury's white gown, Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu, who portrays Lucia's lover, Edgardo, fooled around with the prop knife that Lucia uses to kill Arturo. (A moment later, a watchful propmistress cleverly distracted Pirgu, plucked the knife from his hand and put it away for safekeeping.)

Pulitzer explained why Lucia still resonates today: “The core of the story is about the pain of loss, which we all feel.

“The water was my way into the piece,” she added. “The very first time we see Lucia onstage, there's a great deal of harp music that is about water. And then the first aria she sings is about a source of water that has a bad history that comes out of it. There's a ghost, a death and blood, and all this stuff. … [Water is] a safe place to retreat from the world and from gravity, and has all the metaphors of death and life and the womb.”

The production also features Thomas Bloch, who will spin watery ghost sounds on the glass harmonica, a bizarre and rare instrument developed by Benjamin Franklin.

In an unusual twist, Pulitzer moved the story to a different time. “I chose to set it in 1885 because of the tectonic changes that the Industrial Revolution brought and the beginning of the rise of the middle class and the temperance leagues … [which were] percolating as the source for the suffragette movement,” she said. “We're not going for pure 1885; we're going for the silhouette of the era but stripped of detail … so we get this interesting tension between 1885 and now.” – Falling James

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