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Review: A Very Fine ‘Lammermore’

Lucia di Lammermoor , the 19th-century Italian opera by Gaetano Donizetti, which is being given a stellar production at the Lebanon Opera House, has nearly all the elements required of a pot-boiling tragedy. Based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor , which told the story of two rival Scottish families, the opera boiled down Scott’s convoluted plot to the essentials. There are star-crossed lovers, a marriage that will avert a family’s financial ruin and one old-fashioned mad scene, here given riveting life by the soprano Angela Mortellaro as Lucia.

This Opera North production sets the opera in Richmond, Va., at the end of the Civil War. The city is in ruins, and Enrico Ashton hopes to marry off his sister Lucia to a wealthy suitor, Arturo Bucklaw. But Lucia has fallen in love with a Union officer, Edgardo di Ravenswood, and resists her brother’s plans. Spoiler alert: all will not go well.

Lucia is what feminist scholars have called the “Madwoman in the Attic,” the woman whose sanity is questioned because she objects to having her future controlled by others. Donizetti wasn’t a feminist, of course, but the opera, and this staging by Elena Araoz, does raise provocative questions about where the line of madness lies.

Lucia has a mad scene, but is she mad? Or is she a young woman who has come through a long war in a bombarded city, who has also recently lost her mother and is under the thumb of a dictatorial brother? She snaps but whether this the result of chronic mental instability or a kind of blunt force trauma is ambiguous.

From the overture’s first ominous muffled drums and cannon shot of brass, the score gallops along with ferocious intensity, refined here to an exquisite tension by conductor Anthony Barrese. Lucia di Lammermoor may not be as well known to some audiences as a Mozart or Puccini opera, but its music is remarkably beautiful and Donizetti’s grasp of structure and scene development so sure that it deserves to be better known. Opera North has done first-rate work in recent years but this production is exceptionally well-sung and acted.

It has two star performances by Mortellaro and DongWon Kim as Enrico Ashton, who bring not only power and a purity of line to vocally demanding roles but the kind of emotional conviction and truthfulness that sets the best opera singers apart. Are they acting singers or singing actors? They’re both, and you don’t want to miss them if you can help it.

Mortellaro has sung the role of Lucia before and she has a dramatic presence and a limber, seamless voice particularly well-suited to the kind of bel canto singing this role requires. In the role of Enrico, Kim dominates with a baleful gaze, and a dark, resonant baritone with an edge of steel.

Scott Ramsay, who plays Edgardo, has a plangent tenor voice and a gentle manner that I’m not sure entirely fits the role. Harold Wilson, who also plays Emile DeBecque in South Pacific , is a compassionate Raimondo, the pastor who counsels restraint when Enrico and Edgardo feud.

Barrese balances the fragile beauty of Donizetti’s writing for Lucia’s voice with the brooding depth of the male vocals. Both the orchestra and the chorus were in vigorous, unified voice, and deserve special praise.

I have a quibble which wouldn’t be worth noting except that it detracts from a largely splendid production. During the famous mad scene, Lucia wears pantaloons rather than a dress or robe. Having just stabbed her husband of a few hours she would naturally be covered in blood, and she might even be wearing the pantaloons of a 19th-century Southern girl, but the placement of some of the blood is indelicate.

It might indicate a literal defloration — perhaps rape — that we assume has taken place on the wedding night. Or perhaps it’s a metaphor for Lucia being driven mad, which is an intriguing interpretation. But the blood-soaked garments leave so little to the imagination that it distracts from Mortellaro’s indelible power in those moments.

“Lucia di Lammermoor” continues at the Lebanon Opera House through Aug. 17. For more information and tickets, call the Opera House Box Office at 603-448-0400 or go to http://www.operanorth.org.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.