Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor reduced its source, Walter Scott's complex and densely populated novel The Bride of Lammermoor, to a romantic melodrama of skeletal simplicity. But Donizetti's richly tuneful score, plus the irresistible challenges of its title role, sustained its popularity through long years when most of his other 70-odd operas were ignored.
Tackling it for the first time, Madison Opera offered a strong production at Overture Hall last weekend. The opera is about feuding families and tragic lovers, and the production kept in its late-17th-century setting. The set (from San Francisco Opera) suggested good period images, if confusing up from down. The sumptuous costumes (from Utah Opera) were totally apt. Stage director Michael Scarola, with assistance on dance and fights, devised vivid, well-executed movements and visual effects. The 45-member chorus, prepared by Andrew Abrams, proved powerful and expert. In his Madison debut, conductor John Keenan sometimes mismanaged the orchestra's balance with the stage, but he shaped a propulsive, idiomatic performance.
Keenan made interesting decisions in handling this often-mangled score. He restored several passages traditionally cut, returning to the composer's original intentions. On the other hand, he (or somebody) followed the unwise practice of so many productions in omitting entirely Scene 1 of Act III. Its terse confrontation between Enrico, Lucia's brother, and Edgardo, her lover, prepares the circumstances of the final Scene 3. The opera is already long without it, but needs all the dramatic clarification it can get.
The key to Lucia is its cast, especially its leading singer. At Friday's opening, soprano Luz del Alba initially displayed a somewhat heavy and quavery tone. But she artfully suggested Lucia's instability from the start, and summoned both vocal and dramatic power for a truly chilling portrayal of Lucia's archetypical mad scene in Act III.
The male lineup was notable. The raw, even forced singing of Edgardo by tenor Robert Breault seemed to reveal a Pavarotti wannabe; but he rose eloquently to his final aria. Heath Rush's sweet tenor voice deserved more than just the minor role of Arturo, Lucia's hapless bridegroom. Bass Quinn Kelsey was darkly villainous as the selfish Enrico, her brother. I really liked bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen, a local favorite, who nobly sang and acted the conflicted clergyman Raimondo.
The cast's ensemble spirit shone in the celebrated Act II sextet. And, whatever the nits picked, Madison Opera could boast a new hit, roaringly approved by the audience.