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I Love Lucy

“I want to see what was there for me once, then what is there for me now,” playwright Lillian Hellman famously wrote in her 1973 memoir, Pentimento. Often, however, many of us don’t want to revisit indelible memories. Perhaps we’re afraid that if we keep examining them, they won’t ultimately measure up to the place of supreme importance we have assigned them in our past.

I had an experience along these lines on Friday, November 11, 2017, at opening night of Florida Grand Opera’s production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. It was the opening of the seventy-seventh consecutive season of FGO, where I began working last January as the company’s Public Relations Manager. It was a sudden and momentous move for me: I spent twenty-eight years as an editor at Opera News Magazine, and more than thirty years as a resident of New York City before suddenly being job-eliminated and having to scramble for a professional berth. Prior to my job interview, I had never set foot in Miami, and, with classic New York tunnel vision, I had a mistaken impression that the only thing that mattered here was where to find the perfect Mojito. The transition has been far easier than I expected: I’ve made wonderful friends in Miami, and have come to relish all of the city’s well-publicized advantages: long, glorious, sunny days at the beach, superb dining, and a far more vibrant cultural life than I had known existed here.

Still, when I learned that FGO was going to be staging Lucia di Lammermoor for opening night of the 2017–18 season, I had mixed feelings. Back in October of 1982, only four months after I had left my home in Oregon to move to New York City, I had experienced my first Lucia at the Metropolitan Opera. It remains one of the seminal theatrical events of my life. Starring as the tragic Scottish bride-to-be Lucia was the legendary Australian soprano Dame Joan Sutherland, returning to the Met after a four-season absence, in which she and her husband, conductor Richard Bonynge, had reportedly squabbled over appropriate repertoire. The Met had wanted her to sing Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, which no longer interested her; she wanted to star in Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow, which did not interest the Met. The upshot was that this great artist had been absent for many crucial seasons when she was in spectacular vocal form, and her army of admirers felt seriously deprived.

Her return to to Met roster was a highly publicized (and, for her fans, a highly emotional, event). Fingers were pointed and blame assigned in both directions. But the thing that everyone agreed upon was that the Sutherland magic was undiminished. Although she was in her mid-fifties at the time, her voice was still enormous, beautiful, and astonishingly fresh and flexible; when she hit her highest notes, they actually seemed to resonate inside my own head. I had never heard anything remotely like it in the theater.

That run of Lucias became a kind of gateway drug to what was to become my serious and lifelong addiction to opera. I never stopped looking on it as one of my most potent operatic touchstones. 

But two Friday nights ago at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Ziff Ballet Opera House, I made a wonderful discovery: it is Lucia itself, as a masterpiece of the bel-canto repertoire, that is my touchstone. This gloomy, Gothic story of power struggles, family feuds, and how one woman can overcome her own subjugation only by committing an appalling act of violence, is simply greater than any one interpretation can promise. Sitting in the audience at FGO’s production, as I listened to Anna Christy and Joshua Guerrero, Trevor Scheunemann, and a talented supporting cast bring the work to life, I experienced the great pleasure of feeling my connection to the work move to a deeper level. I felt very happy that I have been able to manage the transition from New York to Miami, and even happier that Lucia is no longer a memory preserved, like a fly in amber. My passion for this work isn’t something that’s trapped back in 1982. It’s a living thing that will go on and on—and that seems something worth celebrating.

Two performances of FGO’s Lucia remain, in Fort Lauderdale, at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts’ Au-Rene Theater on November 30 and December 2, 2017, both at 7:30 p.m.

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7 Comments

  1. Sutherland was vocally quite extraordinary in that run, which I heard from Family Circle standing room. She was just as audible and dexterous up there as when I had heard her in my parents’ orchestra seats six years before in PURITANI. But I confess that best thing about the show to me was hearing Alfredo Kraus, a model of vocal and interpretive elegance, as Edgardo. When it’s good, LUCIA can be very satisfying. Enjoy the FGO run!

    • Thanks for your comment, David. Kraus was stunning, as he was with Dame Joan the following season in LA FILLE DU REGIMENT. “Elegance” is the perfect word to describe what he brought to Edgardo, and to so many other roles. Why do I find myself wondering if he will be given his proper due as time goes on–do you know what I mean?

      • I was thinking of Kraus recently and thinking, hm, one doesn’t hear much about him these days; I wonder why? — So glad you’ve “discovered” another opera masterpiece!

  2. Like you, my first Lucia was in 1982 with Dame Joan. This was my introduction (outside of Barbiere) to bel canto. At the time I had studied a couple of Donizetti and Bellini arias, but had never heard it done live. What a revelation! We’ve had a couple of Lucias in Miami since then–most memorably with Leah Partridge, directed by Bliss Hebert. Her mad scene had moments of astonishing, shocking bravery–hurling herself onto a table covered with food–and she had the requisite sweet, shimmering, floating high voice and great physical beauty. The more I get to know this opera, though, the more I appreciate the other music, too. There is so much great music! Here it’s been, almost a week since I saw Lucia last (I went on Tuesday), and it is still echoing in my inner ear.

    • Thanks for the comments, Lucie. I am fairly done in by having the chance to listen to LUCIA night after night, just as I did back in 1982. I don’t mean to say that I feel I’ve neglected it since then, but it’s funny how the impact of a work can fade in your mind when you don’t have the privilege of sitting in the theater night in and night out, experiencing the whole thing. I also loved LA FILLE DU REGIMENT with Sutherland and Kraus in 1983. I think it’s a perfect opera!

  3. Loved your reminiscences of Lucia with Sutherland at the MET
    and the pithy comments on star/fan/MET dynamics, Brian.
    As always, your writing and observations are a delight.
    Keep ‘em coming!

  4. William V. Madison

    November 24, 2017 at 10:12 am

    Every now and then I’m “surprised” by an opera that I’d remembered primarily for the singers and not for the work itself. A performance of “Don Pasquale” at New York City Opera, during my own Opera News tenure, made me realize how flawlessly constructed that opera is, and with competent but not starry singers, the piece remained delightful as ever. I’m still waiting for the “Lucia” performance that will have this effect on me, though last summer’s production at Santa Fe — with a glass harmonica in the mad scene — came close.

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