Indiana University Bloomington

Review: Remarkable young talent a highlight of Saturday’s opera performance

The performance requirements are steep for Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” currently in local revival, courtesy of Indiana University Opera Theater.

The popular opera is at the heart of “bel canto” repertory, “bel canto” meaning “beautiful sound.” But in addition to demanding tones that gratify the ears, the “Lucia” score asks for singers who can project and contribute exciting vocal drama.

After all, the story speaks of cruelty, deceit, murder and madness. Profusely melodic though the music used to tell the tale of poor Lucy, it must be propelled to listeners with great passion. No wimpy tone production allowed.

Well, fear not, those of you who’ve yet to hear what’s going on in the Musical Arts Center: The current production of “Lucia di Lammermoor” strikes both at the eardrums and the heart, while staying true to the traditions of early 19th-century bel canto. Donizetti is being amazingly well served by one and all, most surely by the focus of everything that happens, the heroine, the soprano who portrays the title character. On Saturday evening, a remarkable young talent was to be seen: Rose-Antoinette Bellino. Without the right Lucia, there is no reason for a performance of the opera. Bellino is the right Lucia.

I write of Saturday’s Lucia only because, not wishing to contribute throated hacking to the soundscape, I remained away from last Friday evening’s opening. But I returned to duty for Saturday’s repeat, and I intend to catch up with the other cast this coming weekend.

The production’s conductor, Gary Thor Wedow, had told me during the rehearsal period about his hopes for audience reaction when the final curtain falls. “Shouldn’t opera transport us, inspire us and take us out of ourselves,” he posed. “This is such a moving story of faithful young love destroyed by clan warfare. It’s gloomy, yes, but the music is so magnificently uplifting and romantic that I know we will be inspired by it, forget our personal troubles for a while, cleanse our soul weeping for poor Lucia, and become bigger, more feeling people.”

After hearing and seeing the newly put-together “Lucia,” I can buy into Maestro Wedow’s expectation. He, indeed, must be credited for critical portions of the production’s success. Artistically steeped in historically informed performance (hewing to musical methods practiced when the opera was written), he fine-tuned the cast’s vocalizations to what seems a likely reproduction of what Donizetti expected from his chosen singers.

The pit ensemble, the IU Concert Orchestra, likewise evidenced a feel for nuances and lighter articulation than one often gets these days in readings of early Romantic, pre-Verdi operas. Instrumental sounds produced were often loud, never leaden. The Walter Huff chorus, superbly trained, fell right into line with Wedow’s intentions.

The stage sets impressed. Created by the gifted visiting set and costume designer Philip Witcomb, their Gothic resonance and sorrowful, oppressive presence served as an evocative environment for the evil and moral decay they bear witness to: the destruction of the sweetly innocent and unwitting heroine. Patrick Mero’s lighting accentuated the darkness of the unfolding plot. Nineteenth-century costumes interestingly brought the story compellingly closer to now in substance.

Another well-chosen visitor, Jose Maria Condemi, put to the task of directing cast and chorus, placed emphasis on the melodramatics attached to Lucia’s personal tragedy. He gave three-dimensional villainy and/or cowardice to most who affect Lucia’s existence: her nasty brother Enrico Ashton, set on saving himself and the family name at the expense of his sensitive sister, played with sneering gusto and sung in resonant baritone by Ian Murrell; the Ashton family chaplain Raimondo, more of an intriguer than councilor, sung by a fine bass-baritone, Julian Morris; Arturo, Lucia’s husband-for-one-fateful-night, portrayed in proper self-glory by tenor Joseph Ittoop; and Ashton estate busybody Normanno, a role fulfilled by another well-toned tenor, Doowon Kim. On the right side, of course, is Lucia’s attendant Alisa, sung neatly by mezzo Yujia Chen.

The significant and unhappy role of Lucia’s lover Edgardo was taken by Joseph McBrayer, who displayed a ringing tenor and notable stage presence. His big scene follows Lucia’s demise and covers the character’s realization that he, too, has been duped, that Lucia did not betray him but that her brother plotted successfully to part them. Edgardo’s suicide concludes the opera.

So, let me return to Saturday’s Lucia. Rose-Antoinette Bellino shaped a fully developed tragic creature emotionally tossed about like a victim in a whirling cage. One sees in her performance a girl of a woman smitten with love for life and Edgardo. Her descent into despair and death was heartrending to view.

And because of Bellino’s brilliant vocal acrobatics, Lucia’s tortured existence becomes — again as Donizetti undoubtedly would have wished — exhilarating. The rangy soprano sang with astonishing accuracy and assurance and thrust. As actress, she was alternately limber and frail, a figure magnetic to watch. Musically, she accomplished the famous Mad Scene in memorable fashion.

Rightfully, Saturday’s audience cheered.

By Peter Jacobi | H-T reviewer | pjacobi@heraldt.com

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