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31 October, 1999

Met Lucia in the original key plays to empty seats.

Lucia di Lammermoor. 5 Oct 1999, Lincoln Center.

Lucia di Lammermoor. 'Original 1835 version'.

Ashton - Roberto Frontali
Raimondo - Paul Plishka
Lucia - Andrea Rost
Edgardo - Frank Lepardo
Arturo - Matthew Polenzani
c. - Charles Mackerras

There were no bagpipes but this 'authentic' Lucia might have been improved by the addition of a helping of haggis. This version was inspired by years of research by Charles Mackerras, 'American born of Australian parents' according to the program notes. I suspect the decision was born of a disdain for the New York opera audience, a fatal flaw in a person of the theatre. And there were LOTS of empty seats - in every section. Not as bad as Moses und Aron, though. I wonder if Ruth Anne Swenson will sing to empty seats in her 'regular rendition' in November with 'incorrect' keys?

The opera was a continuing disappointment with every high note for soprano omitted. While the harpist had found some extra ornamentation and some music I had not heard before, she omitted the last and most difficult final bars of Lucia's entrance to the fountain scene. So much for 'originality'! The 'triple cadenza' at the end of the fountain scene was included in both Sutherland recordings although she rarely did it all on stage.

Reams were written in the New York Times and the night's program about the justification for performing Lucia without the high notes. Mackerras writes that the traditional cadenza in the Mad Scene was 'completely anachronistic' and that the original 'dying fall' is much more 'touching and appropriate'. It was stated that the flute obbligato would be replaced by the rarely heard 'glass harmonica' but it sure sounded like a flute to me. I could not hear any glass harmonica although I sat in row 3 of the orchestra. It was said that these were Donizetti's original keys and that the arias would sound much more immediate and exciting. They did sound good, but all the more getting us ready for the climax which, of course, never came. It reminded me of the last dress rehearsal I ever went to, Sutherland's last Sydney Lucia in which she also omitted the high notes (to conserve the voice for opening night, on which she gave us, as always, the full magilla).

There were fine performances however. Frank Lepardo, American tenor who I first heard over a decade ago in Cosi fan Tutte in Florence (with Bartoli and Mehta), saved this show from total embarrassment. He sang with confidence, power, accuracy and great beauty. His tomb scene was deservedly cheered. There were shades of Jan Peerce who I only heard on 78s.

Roberto Frontali also proved to be an excellent singer, taking risks, complex turns and accidentals at times. Mercifully, the fabulous storm scene had been reinstated and the duet for baritone and tenor was about as good as opera gets. No omitted notes here, and the tympani sounded like an earthquake.

Matthew Polenzani sang well as the ill-fated groom. He fulfilled that promise from his Almaviva at NYCO last year. He has a crisp, confident ringing tenor which should go a long way.

It was almost disappointing that Miss Rost sang so well since, after ornamented, tuneful music that we all know so well, she consistently faded away, even turned around and departing the stage while we were still expecting a thrilling high D or E flat. Try to imagine the end of the Mad Scene with no applause from the Met audience! The music just went on after an embarrassing pause. A devastated and 'winded' audience tried to cope with this calculated let-down. We were then served 'Spargi d'amoro ...' which, though well, or even excitingly sung, ended on an absent note swallowed somewhere instead of the E flat (or D flat) that we have always been used to.

Rost has a capable and piercing voice as also shown by her recordings. She can project a high tessitura into this vast Met house with ease. Her E flats on recording sound full and crisp. She acts tolerably although she is still light years away from the Callas/Sutherland legacy.

Paul Plishka deserves comment. It would be unfair not to start by acknowledging the 33 years of unbroken service this marvellous big baritone (sometime bass) has given the Met. But as Raimondo he only approached greatness occasionally. He looks like a Halloween monster with black holes for eyes. The voice has developed a wide wobble which he commendably controls where possible. On exposed notes, however, it is just ugly and it may be time for him to step aside for a younger artist. It must be said that he has the only voice at the Met that I have ever heard with an echo repeat.

It was a strange manoeuvre of this conductor to draw attention to himself and reduce one of the great operas almost to the banal in the process. I believe in musical archaeology but it does not belong in the mainstream theatre at our expense. My sympathy went to young folk in the theatre hearing the opera for the first time. They may never bother with Lucia again - and just wonder at why people go wild over this show.
The production used combinations of two set designs appropriate to Scotland. A massive rough sedimentary rock escarpment contrasted well with gilded Gothic 'Tudor' interiors including massive stained glass windows. The costumes were traditional style.

Lucia will always remain one of my favourite pieces, despite its detractors' claims of kitsch; formulae; high notes and orchestral simplicity ... it will ever be a vehicle for great artists.

Charles Mackerras has lost points in my little book for his killjoy actions.

comments by Andrew Byrne ..
currently visiting New York, on usual email.
Dr Andrew Byrne,
General Practitioner, Drug and Alcohol,
75 Redfern Street,
New South Wales, 2016,
Tel (61 - 2) 9319 5524 Fax 9318 0631
author of: "Methadone in the Treatment of
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