The Maryland Lyric Opera’s stated raison d’etre is to find and nurture good singers, then give them a place to test their mettle on masterworks such as those by Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, and the like. The company’s current production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor features a mostly homegrown roster, and the results are impressive.
In its first fully staged performance, this one at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on the University of Maryland campus in College Park, Maryland Lyric Opera (MDLO)’s opening night of the show featured American soprano Maeve Höglund as the doomed Lucia; baritone and South Korean native SeungHyeon Baek as her scheming brother Enrico; Chinese tenor Yi Li as Lucia’s love interest, Edgardo; Chinese bass Wei Wu as Raimondo, the clergyman; and Lebanese-American Roy Hage as Lucia’s husband-by-arrangement, Arturo. Chinese mezzo-soprano Daiyao Zhong and Chinese tenor Yang Chen sang the roles of Lucia and Enrico’s aides, respectively. All but Hage and Chen are graduates of MDLO’s Young Artist Institute.
Donizetti’s early 19th-century tragedy, based on a tale by Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott, portrays the doomed love affair of the eponymous Scottish noble and Edgardo, a member of a rival family, desperately hated by Lucia’s brother Enrico. Lucia, freshly grieving over the loss of her mother, slowly descends into a fatal madness after Enrico, to preserve the family’s wealth and reputation, uses deception to trick his sister into abandoning Edgardo to marry the wealthy land-owning Arturo instead. Enrico’s scheme results in murder-suicide for the lovers.
All Lucias are judged by their mad scene, but from the moment Höglund offered us her “Regnava nel silenzio” in the first act, we were promised good things to come. The role is intimidating, and Höglund approached it with careful control that, as she gains more confidence, could bloom into something quite special. Höglund demonstrated she has a seamless column of sound, and an instrument flexible enough to take on what is some of the most demanding coloratura singing in all of opera.
Because Donizetti’s score, written in the bel canto style, allows for the soprano to embellish as she sees fit, often the mad scene itself can go off the rails. Höglund sang the score as written, while tastefully acting out a sexual fantasy as she sang “Il dolce suono,” making any extraneous notes unnecessary to underscore Lucia’s derangement. I heard one note slip slightly in the subsequent “Spargi d’amaro pianto,” but I was grateful for that, since a technically perfect Lucia would have been less convincing than Höglund’s gutsy, erotic one. Which is to say, Höglund’s singing is compelling but so is her acting, which was more restrained, but as effective, as another great actress-singer and interpreter of the role, Anna Netrebko.
Donizetti’s original score for the mad scene also pairs Lucia with a glass harmonica, but most modern-day performances turn instead to a flute virtuoso to play the voice inside Lucia’s head. Whereas the glass harmonica offers eerie, not-quite-right pitches that are easy to equate with hallucinations, MDLO’s principal flutist and Virginia native, Lauren Sileo, played with such precision that the flute here made more sense, underscoring as it did Lucia’s certainty she is speaking with Edgardo and not having an auditory hallucination. The effect was sweet and playful, which only added to the pathos, since of course, Lucia is not having fun; she is descending into suicidal madness.
Höglund nailed the final note of that aria – the vaunted E flat – but the shimmer was squelched; however, I am willing to say that could have been due to the Smith Center’s Kay Theatre, which was barely able to contain the big sounds MDLO artistic director and conductor Louis Salemno pulled from his singers and 50-member orchestra. The limited acoustics also squashed the resounding beauty of the Act II sextet and finale, which began as proof-positive that the lead and secondary voices in the cast blended nicely together.
Baek’s Enrico was a delightful surprise. Baek musters enough menace to earn his baritone bad boy bona fides, but he is not overtly physical, leading me to suspect that he would also be convincing in more tender and nuanced roles such as Marcello in La Bohème. Baek’s Italian pronunciation is also notably good. This was in contrast with Wu’s less-than-convincing Italian sounds, but very capable voice. In addition to having come through MDLO’s Young Artist Institute, Wu and castmate Li are also graduates of the Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. Li was another delightful surprise, and I look forward to hearing his lyric tenor in future shows. Hage’s preening Arturo made me giggle, and he sang with an assuredness indicative of a range that clearly extends beyond this role.
The chorus, rehearsed by chorus master Steven Gathman, was excellent, especially for a young, regional opera company. The Nick Olcott-directed production is unfussy, using a set originally produced for Florida Grande Opera, effectively lit by lighting designer Joan Sullivan-Genthe.
At least for the remainder of this season, the itinerant MDLO is splitting its performances between the UMD campus and the Bethesda United Methodist Church. Upcoming shows include reviews of Mozart, Puccini, and Verdi arias.
Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with two 20-minute intermissions.
MDLO’s Lucia di Lammermoor played January 24-26, 2019, at the Kay Theatre in The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, 8270 Alumni Drive, University of Maryland, College Park, MD. The opera was sung in Italian with English subtitles.