Lucia di Lammermoor was one of the first operas I bought. I had seen an Australian film called Man of Flowers, and though I normally sit all the way through the credits anyway this time I had a purpose besides extraneous thoroughness, which was to discover the source of the haunting duet featured on the soundtrack. I loved the film but I really loved the music, and I bought the cassettes (yes, it was that long ago) the next day. San Francisco Opera, which has in my experience an extremely adequate record with the Italian classics, has always done right by Lucia, and they pretty much continued the streak with their latest outing.
I was in the house for the performance that was simulcast to Major Phone Company Park (maybe I should explain the joke to out-of-towners or non-baseball fans: the Giants' new stadium was first called Pac Bell Park, which was fairly euphonious, but over the past few years, as the sponsoring phone company has merged or subdivided or metastasized or whatever it's doing, the name has changed to SBC Park and then AT&T Park, but since they aren't paying me for the naming rights I figure I can call it what I want). I understand from a friend who was there that it was a fun, relaxed atmosphere, with kids running around and people picnicking, with everyone enjoying both themselves and Lucia's murderous insanity, which is totally nice but I prefer my opera without all the distractions, though I have been wishing I were at the ballpark, but mostly so that I could watch a ballgame (it’s funny that while opera houses are starting to broadcast as widely as possibly, baseball games increasingly can only be seen on a few pay cable channels).
After the presentation of the San Francisco Opera Medal to Kip Crenna, the company’s musical administrator (I was a little startled to see Gockley casually pull the medal-case from his pants pocket; couldn’t they get a super to do some sort of Octavian-presents-the-silver-rose thing with it?), we then had to stand for the National Anthem. I love the Star-Spangled Banner, mostly because no one can sing it and the tune comes from an old drinking song, but my patriotism has dropped to just about zero over the last, oh, eight years or so, and besides I was exhausted and did not feel like standing; although the Opera House was fairly comfortable, we had had a few days of temperatures hovering around 95 degrees. But as soon as the quiet drumrolls that begin the overture rolled out, I realized why they needed to play the anthem: how else can you let those in the ballpark know that the show is officially about to start?
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Graham Vick’s production, given all the wacky whatthefuckery (which I liked) of last fall’s Tannhauser. His Lucia is fairly conventional; there were lots of sliding panels, which were no doubt acoustically useful, and scenes indicative of the outdoors; the costumes were mostly traditional-looking tartans (with Lucia’s bridegroom, nicely done by Andrew Bidlack, and company differentiated by their formal English court attire); the blocking was pretty basic. At several points I had the impression that the chorus was simply grouped by voice type and standing pretty much as they would at a choral concert. Nothing scary and radical, and nothing especially enlightening either.
I particularly liked the rippling pointillism provided by the harpist (I assume this was Michael Rado as listed in the orchestra personnel), and Alexander Marguerre on the glass harmonica was outstanding – I’m not sure if I’ve heard the mad scene done live with the glass harmonica before, but I’m now convinced it’s the only way to go; the extra echoing eeriness is worth any trouble involved in finding the instrument or someone to play it. But this was pretty much the Natalie Dessay show. The earlier Lucias I had seen in San Francisco starred Ruthanne Swenson, and though I would say Swenson had a lovelier voice, Dessay has a more powerful and committed stage presence, chiefly because she can act, as in, she could have a career on stage even if she couldn’t sing at all. She carefully moved from a coltish young girl to the blood-stained bride, vacant-eyed with grief. Edgardo, her true love, was played by Giuseppe Filianoti, and though I have heard glowing reports about him I can’t say he came across as a star, though in fairness to him I should note that by the time his big scene rolled around at the end it was quite late and everyone around me was however unwillingly nodding off in the heat, including the couple next to me who had driven up from Monterey and taken a hotel room for the night just so they could hear Dessay live for the first time (it was her San Francisco debut). They (actually, just the wife; the husband sat there in goggle-eyed silence except for an occasional loud interjection during the performance) asked me if I had gone to any of the Met simulcasts; I said no, since I thought they had the inconvenience of live performances (especially given our three-hour time difference with New York) without the compensatory benefits; she disagreed, and said that for people like them, living far enough from San Francisco to make a trip to the opera a major undertaking, they were wonderful, which I think is fair enough. They had seen Daughter of the Regiment with Dessay, and then Manon. There are very few operas I consider pretty much a complete waste of time, and one of the few that tops Daughter of the Regiment on that list is Manon (though I do like Puccini’s version), but I had seen Dessay in Le Rossignol and also as Ophelia in Ambrose Thomas’s Hamlet, so I recommended those to the Dessay fans. That Hamlet DVD (with Keenlyside as the Prince) is outstanding, particularly if you can forget that it’s based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which is easy enough to do considering how inadequate it is as an operatic version of the great tragedy, but can I just say that, amazing as Dessay is as Lucia, I had the slightest sense of déjà vu since I had also seen her run mad as Ophelia?
I retained enough energy to stand and applaud for Dessay as she deserved before stumbling out for the long trek home – I was so tired I couldn’t even walk in a straight line. During the curtain calls, in a delightful touch, the cast came out wearing or carrying various items of San Francisco Giants fannery as a salute to the audience in the ballpark, and once again I wished I had one of those crazy camera phones that all the kids blog with, so I could capture Dessay with her huge orange foam “Giants #1!” finger. You’ve gotta love that she did that, though I couldn’t blame her for switching during her second or third bow to a more stylish cap, which she perched on her head in a manner tres chic.