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Soprano Swenson Loves the Demands of 'Lucia'

March 10, 1994|CHRIS PASLES | Chris Pasles covers classical music and dance for The Times Orange County Edition.

You could give one Donizetti opera every week for more than a year without having to make any repeats. In fact, you would need 65 weeks to exhaust the list this way.

One of his most popular works is his 50th, "Lucia di Lammermoor," which Opera Pacific is presenting at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa through March 19. The libretto is based on a wildly successful historical novel by Sir Walter Scott titled "The Bride of Lammermoor," which he wrote in 1819 (the same year that he wrote "Ivanhoe"). In it, a woman goes crazy when her brother forces her, for political and financial reasons, to marry a man she doesn't love and thus betray the man she does love.

About a dozen stage adaptations and one opera version of "The Bride of Lammermoor" preceded Donizetti's effort, which premiered in 1935 in Naples.

According to some sources, Donizetti wrote the work in 36 days, with one of the most brilliant coloratura sopranos of the day, Fanny Persiani, in mind for the lead role of Lucia. According to others, he simply revised an earlier work, and Persiani was not the intended soprano.

Moreover, his original intention apparently was to accompany the Mad Scene with a glass harmonica instead of a flute, as happens now. The flute cadenzas were not even written into the original score; the composer left them to the flutist to improvise.

At any rate, Persiani did sing the premiere, and she created a sensation, which virtually every major coloratura soprano since has tried to repeat, especially when tackling Lucia's coloratura Mad Scene.

"Lucia is a very demanding role," said Ruth Ann Swenson, who sings it for Opera Pacific. "It's hard, but I love singing all the cadenzas and the roulades and the coloratura passages in the bel canto repertoire. It's all great for me."

Swenson sang the role in Washington, Detroit, Dallas and in the Metropolitan Opera summer parks concerts. She will sing the role next fall in San Francisco.

Swenson, born in Bronxville, in Westchester County, N.Y., grew up on Long Island. Both her parents were high school teachers who occasionally sang in oratorios. She described them as "professionals, but not on a grand scale." She had two younger brothers.

"We were a musical family," she said. "I was surrounded by music growing up, but it was nothing we were pushed into. We liked it, but I can remember sitting in the car one day when my mom had the Saturday matinee broadcast from the Met on, saying, 'Do we have to listen to this? I don't like it.' Now look at me. I'm on the broadcast."

Swenson studied at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia and afterward went into the Merola Opera Program at the San Francisco Opera. She met her husband, David Burnakus, who sings in the San Francisco Opera chorus, on one of the Western Opera Theater tours.

The two were married in 1986 and maintain a home in Napa. "I see it about six weeks out of the year," Swenson said. "This is not a glamorous life, like people think. It's not all fun and games. It's hard. You live out of suitcases, staying in hotel rooms. It's lonely. You have to learn to cope with all the traveling."

Her husband is only able to travel "at times, when he's not working," she said. "But he'll be coming down for this."

What: Opera Pacific presents Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor."

When: Friday, March 11, and March 17 and 19 at 8 p.m.; Sunday, March 13, at 2 p.m.

Where: The Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

Whereabouts: San Diego (405) Freeway to Bristol Avenue exit north, then go right on Town Center Drive.

Wherewithal: $15 to $75 (student and senior rush: $15 for unsold seats one hour prior to curtain).

Where to call: (714) 556-2787.


Linda Sohl-Donnell's Rhapsody in Taps troupe will dance Friday, March 11, at 8 p.m. at Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton. Fred Strickler and Bob Carroll will be guest artists with the 10-member company. The concert is sponsored by Cal State Fullerton. (714) 773-3371.

Mummenschanz, the innovative mime-mask trio from Switzerland, will appear on Saturday, March 12, at 8 p.m. at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. Members of the troupe are Floriana Frassetto, Bernie Schurch and John Charles Murphy. (714) 854-4646.

The Hungarian State Folk Ensemble will present "Elindultam Szep Hazambol" (I Was Leaving My Lovely Country) on Tuesday, March 15, at 8 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. The program is sponsored by the Philharmonic Society. (714) 553-2422.

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