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@OperaPhila’s Delectable, Delirious “Lucia” a Killer of a Show

By Galegirl review: Lucia di Lammermoor presented by Opera Philadelphia
Live performance: Sunday, September 23, 2:30 p.m.
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA
Music: Gaetano Donizetti
Libretto: Salvadore Cammarano
5.0 out of 5.0 stars
@OperaPhila’s Delectable, Delirious “Lucia” a Killer of a Show

@OperaPhila’s Delectable, Delirious “Lucia” a Killer of a Show

The wedding guests catch Lucia (soprano Brenda Rae) as she collapses.

Photo by Kelly & Massa

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Brenda Rae as Lucia di Lammermoor | Opera Philadelphia, photo by Kelly & Massa

There’s bucks and raes on Bilhope braes,
There’s a herd on Shortwood Shaw;
But a lily-white doe in the garden goes,
She’s fairly worth them a’.”
–Sir Walter Scott, The Bride of Lammermoor

Like the lily-white doe of Scottish lore, Opera Philadelphia offered up a rare and beautiful Lucia, a sublime sacrifice to the opera gods, as their Festival O18 mainstage production. In a style one might call high horror, conceived with blood-red backdrops and lightning shredding the black moors, @OperaPhila’s Lucia was both terrifying and extraordinary.

@OperaPhila’s Delectable, Delirious “Lucia” a Killer of a Show

Soprano Brenda Rae as the title character | Opera Philadelphia photo by Kelly & Massa

Like its staging at times–guests going through the motions of a wedding celebration like bloodless automatons–the story is surreal. Though it is likened to a Scottish Romeo and Juliet, Lucia di Lammermoor (based on Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor) is even more disturbing. The fragile Lucia has no one except her dispassionate by-the-bed (tutor) to care for her as her sanity slips away. The austerity of the Scottish countryside and the sheer isolation caused by their environs can crush sensitive human beings during the winter months.

The talent level was surreal, too. The principals poured themselves into this show, to stunning effect, chiefly coloratura soprano Brenda Rae and tenor Michael Spyres.

@OperaPhila’s Delectable, Delirious “Lucia” a Killer of a Show

Brenda Rae as Lucia in love | Opera Philadelphia photo by Steven Pisano

As Lucia, Brenda Rae is a rare white doe in the world of opera. During the pre-show talk, the presenter failed to drill down on his point as to why Lucia is not often performed, only mentioning that the show hadn’t been done by Opera Phila in two+ decades. Rae makes the point for him in with the uncommon artistry and vocal facility she displayed as the unhinged Lucia. How many sopranos can sing herculean vocal runs from sotto voce to full voice while making snow angels, while lying on their backs in a blood-stained gown, while believably conveying full-on insanity?

mad scene

Brenda Rae in Lucia’s mad scene | Opera Philadelphia photo by Kelly & Massa

In the story, Lucia is only supposed to be about 17, and Rae embued a lightness and youthfulness to her voice and technique as well, allowing the audience to deeply feel the waste of such a young life. (A rae on Bilhope brae, indeed!)


Michael Spyres as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor | Opera Philadelphia photo by Kelly & Massa

Tenor Michael Spyres had a rich tenor voice, with a clarity and purity to it ideally suited to the noble Edgardo. From his first appearance on stage, this reviewer fell in love with Spyres’ voice. His portrayal was sympathetic and impactful. Also remember that in terms of sheer technique, Edgardo has to sing at the end of the show for an extended period at a vocal range hovering around his break from chest to head voice. He must also sing while dying without a hint of melodrama. He mastered Donizetti’s challenge to see what tenors who sing Edgardo are made of and died convincingly, too. Bravo, Mr. Spyres.

Aturo and Enrico

Arturo (tenor Andrew Owens) is greeted by Enrico (baritone Troy Cook) as he arrives at Lammermoor Castle to marry Lucia. | Opera Philadelphia photo by Kelly & Massa

Baritone Troy Cook was affectingly oily as Lucia’s greedy brother Enrico. While his performance was stellar and unwavering in its menace, I was surprised he wasn’t booed at curtain call for his villainy.

Christian van Horn

2018 Richard Tucker Award winner Christian van Horn as Raimondo.

This production is a fine opportunity to hear the vocal chops the newest Richard Tucker Award winner bass-baritone Christian van Horn. It was a fine turn in a limited role for the young singer. With any luck, there will be more and meatier roles for van Horn with @OperaPhila in the future.

As is now an Opera Philadelphia tradition, Chorus Master Elizabeth Braden took a curtain call along with the Opera Philadelphia Chorus, as well she should. The chorus did a masterful job adding weight and context to this production. Besides a story that invokes heartache, the music in this production is a powerhouse, too, with a full, rich sound that the chorus sends to the rafters.

@OperaPhila’s Delectable, Delirious “Lucia” a Killer of a Show

The Opera Philadelphia Chorus | Opera Philadelphia photo by Kelly & Massa

As I alluded to earlier, the setting and special effects ratcheted up the levels of terror. Director Laurent Pelly might have taken a page out of Christopher Alden’s book in his satirical staging completely at odds with Donizetti’s celebratory music (and the line of chairs–the Alden chairs!), but whatever or whoever his artistic influence in the show’s staging, it worked. I did think Pelly missed one opportunity to have the blood-stained bride appear through the backstage door as the cast was poised there, awaiting her entrance. Her drifting onto the proscenium from stage right was to my mind anticlimactic.

The program notes that conductor Corrado Rovaris hailed from the same hometown as Donizetti, and was chiefly responsible for the co-production coming to Philadelphia. Grazie, maestro. Philly appreciates your efforts. The orchestra was nearly in perfect step with the singers with a bit of a misfire in the very beginning. Particularly affecting was Rae’s duet with the glass harmonica–a chilling touch. Most importantly, the singers were supported, particularly Rae with all her runs at a range of volumes, and not overpowered.

Kudos to the entire Opera Philadelphia organization on producing the finest mainstage production of a classical work I’ve witnessed at the Academy of Music. Truly a can’t-miss show, especially if you only have 10-20 more years to live. Onward and upward to more Festival O18 productions this weekend.


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