NEW YORK--The city was shocked. Shocked. SHOCKED.
The Metropolitan Opera--ancient bastion of all that is safe, opulent, respectable, traditional, dull and lets-pretend realistic--had gone modern.
That's not all, folks. The Met had gone modern with, of all sacrosanct challenges, "Lucia di Lammermoor." The Met had taken liberties with a lovely, beloved, hum-along exploration of waltzing dementia, anno 1835.
Donizetti's sweet old thing used to be every canary-fancier's favorite camping--or poaching--ground. It was the ideal showcase for a prima coloratura donna who could roam the vocal highlands in happy delirium as a prelude to a pretty death and a standing ovation. No one took the drama seriously.
Drama? What drama?
Then, late last month, along came naughty Francesca Zambello. Los Angeles remembers her as the daring director of "Les Troyens" who dressed Dido, Queen of Carthage, as an Amazon in Banana Republic drag.
At the Met, where directors explain non-conventional concepts in program notes, she acknowledged her intention to define "a misty psychological landscape" as she "sought to represent visually the deterioration of Lucia's mind."
This, then, was supposed to be a thinking-person's "Lucia," which may or may not be an oxymoron. This was to be "Lucia" retold as the heroine's Gothic-horror nightmare. The tone would be Expressionist, the action abstract. That hardly seemed revolutionary.
Zambello stylized the narration drastically, citing the dubious influence of such distant Donizetti contemporaries as Victor Hugo and Edgar Allan Poe. John Conklin, her designing accomplice, created deconstructionist decors that wanted to invoke "the melancholy vistas" of Caspar David Friedrich. Martin Pakledinaz created costumes that wrapped the barefoot heroine in flowing gowns of vibrant hues while straitjacketing her adversaries in bleakly forbidding, neutral uniforms.
So far so interesting. Unfortunately, something got distorted in execution.
Much of the activity on the stage provoked unintended mirth at the opening. The set was strewn with coffins and chapel rubble. The chorus was banished to the pit, leaving a corps of creepy-crawly gents to spook the hapless diva in crude mime (the program lists Carmen De Lavallade as the unlikely choreographer).
One flight of theatrical fancy caught everyone's attention, for better or worse. Probably worse. Arturo, Lucia's unwanted bridegroom, arose for his wedding through a trap door, dressed like a Bernini statue. Upon arrival, he tried valiantly to ignore the soprano lying in a picturesque heap at his feet as he asked, "Where's Lucia?"
The tragedy flirted with spoofery. The creaky-moonlight style suggested nothing so much as the artsy-musty satire of Edward Gorey.
Fun City, never very hospitable to interpretive innovation, was not amused. The critics jeered. The audience, according to Peter G. Davis in New York magazine, mustered a "great howl of rage."
There wasn't much to howl about at the repetition Saturday afternoon, which was broadcast nationwide. Some of the excesses obviously had been toned down. Arturo strolled on from the wings to hop onto his rising pedestal. Lucia cowered behind a convenient casket beyond his immediate gaze. No one even tittered. No one booed.
The production looked a little silly, to be sure. Since Lucia was crazed long before her popular mad scene, there could be little building of suspense. The absent chorus created more problems (acoustic as well as dramatic) than it solved. The interpretive leitmotif that defined all men as cardboard brutes and Lucia as their epochal female victim seemed a bit simplistic. So did the fixation on bloody symbols and funereal props.
Still, it was refreshing to see "Lucia" treated for once as something more stimulating than a concert in costume. A staging with ideas marred by miscalculation is still preferable to a staging with no ideas at all.
One certainly didn't notice many ideas emanating on this occasion from the pit, where a routinier named Marcello Panni concentrated on beating time slowly and indulgently. He deserves credit, no doubt, for opening virtually all of the time-dishonored cuts, but there is far more drama, far more finesse in "Lucia" than seems to meet his ear. Where was James Levine when we needed him?
The saving grace of the performance came, literally and figuratively, from the fearless June Anderson, who made a proper tour de force of the title role. Leaving traditional chirping to the dainty divas of yore, she sang with compelling purity and thrust, with dynamic sensitivity, brilliance and uncanny accuracy--a few sharp climaxes in the stratosphere notwithstanding.