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OPERA REVIEW : A Not-So-Fine Madness

June 01, 1993|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

The Music Center Opera, ever adventurous after its fashion, offered a new, gut-thumping, side-splitting, hilarious operatic hoot at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Sunday night. A regular laff riot.

It was called "Lucia di Lammermoor."

I know the title sounds familiar. So, in fact, did much of the music.

But one mustn't be fooled. This wasn't the florid, gently tragic melodrama we used to know and love. This wasn't a quaint Italianization of Sir Walter Scott's novel, neatly and melodiously decorated by an old romantic master.

For better or worse, this was "Lucia di Serban." Andrei, that is.

Put away all thoughts of 17th-Century Scotland, of a damsel both wronged and distressed, of the evil trick that snaps her pretty mind. Forget her pretty death and the heroic suicide it inspires. All that is hopelessly old-fashioned pap.

Serban, the Romanian wunderdirektor , and his designing accomplice, William Dudley, have tried to give us something more relevant: modernist silliness. They have created a sprawling psychodrama of vast, mythic, comic proportions. Chicago saw it last year. Now it was lucky Los Angeles' turn.

The action--well, call it movement --takes place around and atop a grim network of massive, gunk-encrusted, picturesquely pockmarked slabs. Noisily powered by hidden hydraulic forces, the slabs lie flat, rise up, open, tilt precariously and turn around, all at the touch of a button.

Serban sends his sporty cast a-climbing and a-clambering, a-creeping and a-crawling on his rickety toy--up and down, down and up, over and around, onward and sideways. He also makes the protagonists pop in and out of unexpected holes in the walls. Apparently he thinks he commands an ensemble of mellifluous mountain goats.

The obstacle-course unit suggests nothing so much as a petrified dung heap. The central symbol--ah, sweet mystery of strife--is a saintly statue, female, frozen in flowing robes. Until an interpolated moment of quasi-truth near the end, she keeps her back to the audience. Call her Our Lady of the Petrified Dung Heap.

The central plot seems to concern an amazingly athletic, oddly demented woman with long blond hair and a big, high, flexible, occasionally edgy voice. It belongs to the fearless and phenomenal June Anderson.

Well-meaning observers like to liken her to Joan Sutherland. But Sutherland found it difficult to sing and move her big toe at the same time. Anderson, agile to a default, does everything the demanding director asks her to do. One hopes she is well insured. She also manages to take flight like a coloratura super-paragon without pausing, much less gasping, for breath.

When the heroine's plight bores Serban, he brings on some distracting, anti-musical sight gags: a roast pig on a spit, a spear-carrier sporting a bull's head, a few mythological spooks on the roof (out of sight to the blighted viewers upstairs). Most endearing of all, perhaps, is Serban's introduction of a chorus of dainty macho warriors who are obviously terrified of heights.

The general mirth could have been enhanced further with detailed, literal super-titles. But someone here decided to use the textual crutches selectively. Most of the humor emanates, therefore, from the stage, not the screen.

Lucia, our hapless heroine seems to have a little problem. She lives in a crooked, filthy, barren world that keeps changing its shape. Moreover, she is a long-suffering victim of baritone-abuse and basso-abuse, not to mention tenor-abuse. No wonder she is nutsy when we first meet her; she can't wait until the last act for her mad scene.

Serban wants us to think we are seeing the world through Lucia's cloudy eyes, beginning with the prelude. He is yet another director who cannot bear to keep the curtain down even for a mood-setting moment. But when he gets to the last scene, which takes place after Lucia's death, he contradicts the perspective he has so carefully defined. Blithely, he brings the thrilling-trilling diva back in a droll coup de theatre :

She becomes Our Lady of the Petrified Dung Heap, and does so just in time to hand the unarmed tenor a dagger so he can join her in duet heaven.

Ever-Jung, Serban explains it all in a program note. "The characters are responding to a deeper, subconscious reality. . . . Lucia sees things we normal people don't see. Her madness is a form of extended sensitivity. From that point of view, she's more sane than we are."

Elementary, my dear Donizetti.

In a bizarre situation like this, one probably shouldn't dwell on the shortcomings of the cast. Comedy is hard work under the best of circumstances.

No excuses need be made, of course, for Anderson, who actually managed to suggest a canary's sweetness as well as an eagle's strength. She gave an astonishingly intelligent, poignant, tireless, virtuosic performance, against the odds.

The others functioned on a lower plateau. Craig Sirriani as her beloved Edgardo seemed to confuse bel-canto with belt -canto at the outset, though he settled down for some graceful lyricism in the last act. And unlike his illustrious predecessor in Chicago (Alfredo Kraus), he at least was willing to scramble up the set once in a while, and to sing the often-omitted Wolf's Crag duet.

Dmitri Kharitonov, remembered as a rather dull Andrei in "War and Peace" at the San Francisco Opera, turned out to be a reasonably tough and incisive Enrico Ashton. Louis Lebherz's basso sounded raw beyond the call in the utterances of the sadistic Raimondo. Greg Fedderly suggested an Edgardo in the offing as the short-lived Arturo.

In the well-staffed pit, Richard Buckley kept things moving fast and loud, ignoring most opportunities for linear grace, dramatic expansion and dynamic finesse. The Music Center Opera really needs to raise its conductor-standards.

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