Even among the superlatives and extremes of the opera world, a performance of Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor is an event. So much so that the music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle made the hour-long drive south to San Jose last fall for that opera company's production of Lucia. His review describes the performance of the two lead roles, Lucia and her lover Edgardo, as "splendid." That's promising news for Boise since the same two performers, Rochelle Bard and Christopher Bengochea, are starring in Opera Idaho's upcoming production.
Lucia di Lammermoor is considered to be the archetype of the Italian "bel canto" style, a term for fast and florid singing in the highest range of the voice ... the kind that drives opera fans to fits of frenzy. The rare singer who can do "bel canto" is given a special name, "coloratura," referring to great agility with, and beauty in, the high notes.
In the Chronicle review, Bard is described as "agile," "bright" and the reviewer comments on Bard's "expressive stage presence," concluding with, "Her account of the famous final mad scene was a knockout—fluid, precisely etched and marked by a haunting sense of vulnerability."
Not to slight the role of Edgardo, whose suicide ends the opera, even tenor Bengochea might agree that the main star of the night is the opera's namesake, whose tragic tale is loosely adapted from the novel, The Bride of Lammermoor, by Sir Walter Scott.
"The soprano who can be splendid as Lucia will always have work because there are so few of them," said director David Cox. "The mad scene in particular has made the careers of some of the greatest singers in history, such as [Maria] Callas, [Joan] Sutherland and [Beverly] Sills. What's great about Rochelle is that she can not only sing it, but she can really sing it."
Bard says she thinks of Lucia as a triathalon. "Endurance is demanded in different things: the physicality of the acting, plus the strength and flexibility in the voice. You have to be relaxed to land well on those high notes." Imagine vocal gymnastics, with the most difficult leap—a high E-flat—at the very end of a long routine. And Bard even takes another optional high E-flat earlier in the scene. "I like a challenge," Bard explained.
It is that scene in Act II in which Lucia is pushed over the edge. Her brother, Enrico, realizes that the family fortunes are in peril. The problem can only be solved by an arranged marriage for Lucia, who is deeply in love with Edgardo, a member of the enemy in a family feud. When Enrico discovers this, he sings that he will extinguish the flames of their passion with their blood. A better solution is found. A forged letter presented to Lucia claims Edgardo's infidelity, inducing Lucia into the forced marriage. Lucia and Edgardo have already privately exchanged wedding vows and rings, and she is reluctant to believe the letter or to accept the forced marriage plan. But she is told that not staying true to her lover means betraying her entire family. Not obeying her brother's wishes would be as though murdering him with an axe, an act that would haunt her the rest of her days.
The pain of this dilemma is such that Lucia implores God to relieve it by offering her death. She sees her bridal chamber as a grave. She is assured by the pastor that her sacrifice will be rewarded in heaven as she signs the wedding contract in front of the groom and guests, just as Edgardo bursts onto the scene.
At this point one of the great moments in opera ensues: a sextet in which the confluence of confusion and contradiction is expressed by the key players. (The audience can follow the simultaneous singing here and throughout the opera by translations on a screen above the stage.) Edgardo, thinking that he has been betrayed, rejects her violently as he throws their rings to the floor and stomps off. Lucia, devastated, is led away by her new husband. The mad scene follows when she reappears at the wedding party, traumatized, asking for Edgardo, her white gown stained with the blood of her husband, whom she has murdered in the bridal chamber.
The audience now enters Lucia's mind, a vacancy of reality (well captured by local artist Bill Carman's haunting illustration for this production), wherein she hears the voice of her lover echoing hers in the solo flute. Her final note stretches to heaven where she will wait for him.
"Opera" is plural for the Latin word for a work, "opus," and opera is the culmination of many workers in many disciplines: poetry, art, architecture, costuming, props, wigs and make-up, music, acting and, of course, singing. When all these elements work together, as they do in Opera Idaho's production of Lucia di Lammermoor, even madness can make sense.
Dress rehearsal, Thursday, Oct. 30, 7:30 p.m., $12 adults, $5 students; Saturday, Nov. 1, 8 p.m., $10-$80. Morrison Center, 2201 Caesar Chavez Ln. For more information, call 208-345-3531 or visit operaidaho.org.