Artistic/general director’s production presents three-dimensional tragedy in ‘Lucia’

Rachelle Durkin plays Lucia during The Chautauqua Opera’s dress rehearsal for Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the amphitheater on July 4, 2012. Photo by Michelle Kanaar.

Leah Harrison | Staff Writer

Rachelle Durkin might have gone too far when she licked the bloody knife during rehearsal.

As the title character in Chautauqua Opera Company’s production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Durkin descends into insanity before killing her new husband. She has never considered herself a method actress — accessing the thoughts and emotions of the character as if the actor’s own — but Lucia’s extreme persona brought out in Durkin a tendency to become the mad murderess.

“It changes every time, I never do the same thing twice,” Durkin said. “I look in the mirror and see myself with my wig on and blood all over my dress, and try to imagine that I murdered someone. To do it properly, I must conjure up some sort of emotional feedback, but since I’ve never murdered anyone, I have to go on what I’ve seen in movies, or what I’ve seen on ‘60 Minutes’ when they interview criminals. I end up pacing the floor.”

Synopsis of ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’

In Scotland, rival families Ravenswood and Lammermoor are at odds, having fought and shed blood. Enrico Lammermoor triumphed over Edgardo Ravenswood, gaining financial and political power, but the family fortune is dwindling. In an effort to stabilize his family’s position, Enrico plans to force his sister, Lucia, to marry Arturo.

Guards search for an intruder at the house of Lammermoor. Normanno, captain of the guard, informs Enrico that he suspects Edgardo as the trespasser. When Enrico expresses his anger at the presence of his nemesis coupled with his sister’s refusal to marry Arturo, Raimondo, Lucia’s priest, suggests that her distress is linked to her mother’s death. Normanno contradicts Raimondo, saying Lucia has repeatedly been meeting a man. He suspects the man is Edgardo. Enrico is furious, and when the guards confirm the stranger’s identity as Edgardo, Enrico promises revenge. Lucia waits for Edgardo at a fountain near her mother’s grave. She tells her maid Alisa about the ghost she sees, a girl warning her of her love for Edgardo. Alisa warns Lucia to heed the ghost’s warning and to discard Edgardo, but Lucia refuses. When Edgardo appears, he explains that he wants to reconcile his relationship with Enrico so he may marry Lucia, but he must complete a political mission to France first. Lucia pleads for their love to remain a secret, knowing her brother would never consent. He agrees, they exchange vows and rings and part ways.

Enrico enlists Normanno’s help in making his sister marry Arturo. Normanno leaves to intercept Arturo, and Lucia comes to her brother, still defiant. Enrico shows Lucia a forged letter from Edgardo explaining his betrothal to another woman. Lucia wishes for death, but Enrico continues to push the marriage that will save the family fortune. Raimondo also urges her to marry Arturo. Finally, she says she will, and Raimondo tells her of the heavenly rewards she will receive for her sacrifice. Guests gather to celebrate the union, and Arturo promises to relieve the Lammermoor political and financial problems. Enrico pulls him aside to explain that Lucia may seem unenthusiastic and sad, but it’s just her grief for her dead mother. Lucia has reluctantly signed the marriage contract when Edgardo appears. Seeing her signature on the contract, he throws his ring at her and leaves. Lucia faints.

Enrico finds and confronts Edgardo. They agree to duel at dawn.As the wedding parties continue at the house of Lammermoor, Raimondo enters abruptly to report that Lucia has gone insane and killed her husband. She wanders in covered in blood, believing she is married to Edgardo. When Enrico returns to find his sister in this state, he is horrified. Lucia faints, close to death.Edgardo, upset by Lucia’s supposed betrayal of their love, awaits his duel with Enrico, hoping it will end his life. As guests from the wedding are leaving, they see Edgardo and tell him Lucia is dying and calling for him. As he rushes to the castle, Enrico intercepts him with news of her death. When her bier is carried past him, Edgardo stabs himself and dies.

At 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the Amphitheater, Durkin will perform Lucia for the first time. To gain musical insight to her role, she worked with conductor Joseph Colaneri, a colleague from the Metropolitan Opera, where they both perform. The two met last year when Durkin and Colaneri stepped in for ailing soprano Anna Netrebko and maestro James Levine in the Met production of Don Pasquale.

Lucia is the first opera Colaneri ever learned, though he learned it as a chorus master in the beginning of his career, not as a conductor. The masterpiece ranks in his 10 favorite operas, and though he has conducted many operas dozens of times, this is only his second time with Lucia. The first was at the Met in 2008.

The cast includes bass Richard Bernstein, another of Colaneri’s collaborators. Bernstein sang in Colaneri’s Met debut, performing Colline in La Bohème.

In this, his third Chautauqua performance, Bernstein plays Raimondo, a good priest who must convince Lucia to marry someone she doesn’t love to save her family and his job. Bernstein played Raimondo at Central City Opera, located in Colorado at 9,000 feet above sea level. After singing the role with altitude-related challenges, Bernstein feels especially comfortable with Raimondo.

With the stipulation that all opera performed in Norton Hall is sung in the vernacular, opera at Chautauqua has been in English for the vast majority of its history. Because Lucia takes place in the Amphitheater, performers will sing in its original Italian.

But singing in a foreign language is not what makes the Amp special, said  Jay Lesenger, Chautauqua Opera artistic and general director.

“Opera is the only thing you can hear in the Amp that is acoustically natural,” Lesenger said. “We are the only vocal performance in the Amphitheater that isn’t amplified. I think that’s what’s really exciting about the Amphitheater — it reminds people that’s what makes opera great and different from anything else. There’s nowhere else where you can get the visceral excitement of the human voice, except in opera.”

For the production, Lesenger set the story in 1905, a little more than a century after it was originally set.

“I want it to be more gothic, because the novel is more gothic,” Lesenger said. “I think it’s going to be a more interesting look for the piece.”

Colaneri appreciates Lesenger’s directorial decisions, which allow a more complete understanding of the context, making the story fuller.

“Jay has done some staging with dancers,” Colaneri said. “Lucia refers to a ghost appearing to her, but in most productions, the ghost is only referred to, never seen. But we actually see the ghost in this case. You get a lot of backstory filled in, in a good way.”

Bernstein, who Lesenger has known since he began singing, feels the whole production is distinct and multifaceted.

“So many incredible dramatic elements that Jay uses really take the drama and elevate it to such a high level,” Bernstein said. “All of the relationships are very strong and well thought-out, including my relationship with Lucia and with Enrico.”

Enrico is played by bass Todd Thomas, and in typical bass fashion, his character personifies crushing oppression.

“It’s one of those parts I’ve visited once every decade in my life,” Thomas said. “It’s very interesting doing this part, in terms of how I’ve matured. Of course the notes don’t change, the story remains the same, but I’ve changed a lot, both as a brother, as a person, as a man.”

This is Thomas’ eighth production with Chautauqua Opera as a professional — a career with roots at Chautauqua. Thomas was an apprentice in the opera program in the 1980s.

Lesenger’s decision to include a duet between Enrico and Edgardo in the beginning of Act II allows a better understanding of the backstory between rival families. The duet is often cut because it is not necessary to the plot.

“The duet provides great insight; I’m very thankful we’re including it,” Thomas said. “It’s a very testosterone-filled moment between the tenor and baritone.”

As Lucia’s brother, Enrico must convince his sister to marry Arturo — a union that will secure their family’s fickle fortune — though she loves Edgardo.

“There’s a saying that villains are simply misunderstood individuals,” Thomas said. “I think that’s kind of true, to a point. As an actor, you don’t really play bad or evil; you play the intention of a strong brother. If that means you’re oppressive and come down with a heavy hand on your sister, then that’s the way it’s going to be. And when you play the oppressor, they’re far more interesting people than the one who fights for the right side.”

Though Lucia is not exactly a villain, she certainly cannot be cast on the “right side,” and Durkin agrees with Thomas’s sentiment.

“I’m drawn to the darker roles, not your Paminas,” Durkin said. “I love discovering more about Lucia the more I do it. I like finding different facets of the characters I play.”

Production Credits

Lucia Ashton
Rachelle Durkin
Joseph Colaneri
Lord Enrico Ashton
Todd Thomas
Conceived/Directed by
Jay Lesenger
Raimondo Bide-the-Bent
Richard Bernstein
Set Designer
Ron Kadri
Edgardo of Ravenswood
Gregory Carroll
Lighting Designer
Michael Baumgarten
Chorus Master
Carol Rausch
Costume Designer

A complete program for Saturday’s production will be available at the Amphitheater for the evening performance.