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OPERA REVIEW : 'Lucia di Lammermoor': Dull and Dutiful Donizetti

March 11, 1994|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

COSTA MESA — Last Friday, Opera Pacific swept caution to the Santa Ana winds and ventured some lofty, heavyweight Wagner. Honorably.

Wednesday night, the company reverted to dull and dutiful, hand-me-down, bargain-basement Donizetti--via "Lucia di Lammermoor." Business as usual.

Nothing went grotesquely wrong with the mellifluous old masterpiece. But, apart from some flashes of brilliance from the beleaguered leading lady, not much went memorably right, either.

This, essentially, was a noisy festival of belt-canto. And that isn't a typographical error.

Grace? Elegance? Finesse? Expressive sensitivity? Forget it.

The performance at the Orange County Performing Arts Center turned out to be a model demonstration of ancient, not-so-grand art of instant opera. You know--borrow some generic sets, hire a rising star and surround her with an inexpensive collection of would-be's, get a traffic cop to arrange the cast in picturesque formations, and find a conductor who can stir the lumpy musical broth unobtrusively, then meet the singers at the cadence.

Presto, questo. . . . It's easy. It's depressing.

The good news on this occasion was monopolized by Ruth Ann Swenson in the title role. Without the support of a stylish conductor and an imaginative stage director, she couldn't do much to justify a program blurb that invoked comparisons with such disparate paragons as Pons, Callas, Sutherland and Sills. Even when seemingly left to her own bland devices, however, she confirmed her extraordinary potential.

Her voice is an astonishingly big and strong lyric-soprano equipped with a brilliant top extension. She uses it with reasonable agility and, apart from stratospheric climaxes that tend to go sharp, with remarkable accuracy. She looks attractively plucky--actually like a plump and pleasing Tonya Harding--and she strikes apt poses.

She managed some breathtaking flights of fancy fiorature in a quaintly bloodied Mad Scene. When the spirit moved her, she floated some ravishing pianissimo phrases, and seldom stopped for anything so prosaic as the intake of breath.

Still, she sounded rather rough at the outset, and she did little to shade the text or define the heroine's character beyond the customary platitudes. Looking basically healthy and only mildly perplexed, she hardly made her ultimate descent into melodic madness seem inevitable, much less tragic.

Perhaps next time.

Cesar Hernandez partnered her as a small-scaled, sweet-toned, moderately ardent Edgardo afflicted with occasional pitch and focus problems of his own. Mark Rucker's burly baritone defined a mean Enrico who would rather roar than soar. Under the circumstances, one could hardly lament the omission of the Wolf-Crag duet.

Stephen West was suitably dignified, his basso unsuitably loud and not terribly steady as Raimondo, a.k.a. Bide-the-bent. The lesser figures seldom rose above a mediocre opera-workshop level.

The ever-enthusiastic chorus, trained by Henri Venanzi, registered energy, literally to a fault.

Mark Flint conducted with brisk and brusque efficiency. The modest orchestra responded with modest generalities.

Roman Terleckyj oversaw the fussy entrances and exits within Henry Bardon's shabby, quasi-literal, old-fashioned canvas scenery, designed for Dallas 22 years ago. The warehouse sets were attributed to Peter J. Hall.

At least no one decided to subject the elementally Romantic drama to trendy updating. The stage was not cluttered with expressionistic coffins as at the Met, and the central image was not a petrified dung heap as at the Music Center.

Small favors.

Incidental intelligence:

* Even though "Lucia" is one of the world's most popular and most tuneful operas, one saw plenty of empty seats in the house. And "Die Walkure" isn't selling very well, either. So much for operatic appetites in Orange County.

In an interesting attempt to boost box-office action, the management has decided to offer an automatic upgrade to anyone who buys tickets at the center on Saturday between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Example: A $40 purchase for the rear of Tier 2 will actually get the opera-goer a seat in the front, worth $65.

* The non-capacity opening-night audience was enthusiastic. In the case of the crass whistler who pierced ear-drums at every Luftpause, it was too enthusiastic.

* For the second time in the history of the hall, needy travelers were sold coffee during intermissions in the alfresco foyer. The gods can be merciful.

* "Lucia di Lammermoor" presented by Opera Pacific at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Costa Mesa. Remaining performances tonight, Thursday and March 19 at 8 p.m., March 13 at 2 p.m. Tickets ranging from $15 to $75 (see incidental intelligence above), at center box office and agencies. Rush seats for students and seniors sold at $15 one hour before curtain, if available. Additional performance March 23 at the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert.

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