06 April 2015

ARTS IN ACTION: Opera Carolina and a world-class cast restore true bel canto to Donizetti’s LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR


‘Arrived at the door of the apartment, Colonel Ashton knocked and called, but received no answer except stifled groans. He hesitated no longer to open the door of the apartment, in which he found opposition from something which lay against it. When he had succeeded in opening it, the body of the bridegroom was found lying on the threshold of the bridal chamber, and all around was flooded with blood. A cry of surprise and horror was raised by all present; and the company, excited by this new alarm, began to rush tumultuously towards the sleeping apartment. Colonel Ashton, first whispering to his mother, “Search for her; she has murdered him!” drew his sword, planted himself in the passage, and declared he would suffer no man to pass excepting the clergyman and a medical person present … There was no private passage from the room, and they began to think that she must have thrown herself from the window, when one of the company, holding his torch lower than the rest, discovered something white in the corner of the great old-fashioned chimney of the apartment. Here they found the unfortunate girl seated, or rather couched like a hare upon its form—her head-gear dishevelled, her night-clothes torn and dabbled with blood, her eyes glazed, and her features convulsed into a wild paroxysm of insanity. When she saw herself discovered, she gibbered, made mouths, and pointed at them with her bloody fingers, with the frantic gestures of an exulting demoniac.’

Sir Walter Scott: The Bride of Lammermoor, Chapter 34

Abraham Lincoln’s oft-repeated adage about fooling some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time is no less applicable to opera than to politics. Some listeners are unwaveringly devoted to certain singers, particular repertory, or even specific notes: daring to suggest to an aficionado that a favorite vocalist, opera, or climactic top C is undeserving of great esteem, it would be advisable to be prepared either for a fight or to make a quick escape. The passions depicted in opera are anything but cool, so it is only natural that the responses of the genre’s devotees should be similarly incendiary. It is one thing for a sort of musical mass hysteria to sustain the career of a singer or even a style of singing, but it is ultimately something vastly more difficult for fashion to secure an opera’s immortality. In order for a score to continue to command respect and affection generations after its première, there must be an elusive combination of qualities that endears it on some level to all sectors of the operatically-inclined population. In the case of Gaetano Donizetti’s 1835 Lucia di Lammermoor, one of the few bel canto operas to have never left the international repertory since its triumphant first performance at the Teatro San Carlo di Napoli, these qualities can seem as enigmatic as they are undeniable. As shrewd and intuitive an artist as Maria Callas could not have justified portraying Lucia simply because she possessed the coloratura, trills, and [interpolated] E♭6s for the character’s famed Mad Scene. What, then, compelled her not to impersonate but to become Lucia? Why, after 180 years, do audiences continue to embrace Lucia di Lammermoor when contemporary society spurns the notions of arranged marriages, secret elopements, and the insurmountable supremacy of familial duty? The youthful, imaginative principals in Opera Carolina’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor, opening at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center in Charlotte on Saturday, 11 April, have committed themselves to answering these questions in the most irrefutable manner possible—by singing Donizetti’s music with the beauty and credibility that never require any explanation.

ARTS IN ACTION: Baritone HYUNG YUN, Enrico in Donizetti's LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR at Opera Carolina [Photo © by Opus 3 Artists]Buon fratello: Baritone Hyung Yun, Enrico in Opera Carolina’s production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, April 2015 [Photo © by Opus 3 Artists]

Few singers of any age bring more enthusiasm to their work than baritone Hyung Yun, who will sing the rôle of Enrico, Lucia’s socially ambitious brother, in Opera Carolina’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor. Having partnered many of today’s most acclaimed singers on the world’s great stages, Mr. Yun brings to his appearances in Lucia an impressive Curriculum Vitæ including acclaimed performances of the Verdi baritone rôles for which Enrico was in many ways a prototype. ‘In regards to stylistic perspective, I intentionally approach [Enrico] more like a Verdian character,’ Mr. Yun confides. ‘When I prepared this rôle, I felt much anguish and desperation in his character—and it was amazing and inspiring to see [that] Bernard Uzan’s, my stage director, interpretation confirmed my idea the very first day I met him at Charlotte. It’s a most wonderful thing when my understanding and study of [a] character concur with [the] stage director’s.’ Mr. Yun strives to make Enrico a more involved character, one whose motives are less obvious than his actions might suggest. ‘Most productions portray Enrico as being one step behind his emotions and rather reserved, but [my] Enrico has much passion and [is a] purpose-driven character.’ In Mr. Yun’s view, Enrico is more a victim of the circumstances in which he finds himself than a conventional operatic villain: there are far greater depths to Enrico’s character than many productions and performances depict. [The] ‘unexpected, sudden regret in the Sextet is a great example,’ the baritone offers. ‘Donizetti perhaps wanted to [show] Enrico’s humanistic side through the Sextet and foreshadow what is to follow in the Mad Scene.’ Still, Mr. Yun is cognizant of the fact that Enrico is, in effect, a man without a future. ‘If Donizetti had chosen to write Enrico’s fate, perhaps [Enrico] might have given up all he tried to preserve and lived in regret and repentance,’ he says. His insightful consideration of Enrico’s psyche ultimately enables him to focus on the truest heart of the character: Donizetti’s music. ‘Only when this character is imbedded in me almost to [an] extreme extent can I then delve into Donizetti’s musical aspects,’ he shares.

ARTS IN ACTION: Tenor ZACH BORICHEVSKY, Edgardo in Gaetano Donizetti's LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR at Opera Carolina [Photo © by Simon Pauly]Fidanzato segreto: Tenor Zach Borichevsky, Edgardo in Opera Carolina’s production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, April 2015 [Photo © by Simon Pauly]

Mr. Yun’s dedication to finding in Enrico’s character the motivations for his musical profile is shared by tenor Zach Borichevsky, whose Charlotte performances of Edgardo, Lucia’s clandestine betrothed, will be his first. Like Enrico, Edgardo is a bridge between the bel canto of Bellini and Donizetti and the full-on Romanticism of Verdi and Puccini. Mr. Borichevsky is sensitive to the demands of Edgardo’s music, but he is confident that it is the right time in his career to take on the part—and that Opera Carolina is an ideal venue for introducing his Edgardo to the public. ‘Edgardo fits in perfectly with where my voice is right now,’ he says. ‘It's not easy, so it requires intense, complete focus in a way that less-challenging parts don't. I can get away with lazy vocalism on occasion in some other rôles, but Edgardo doesn't let up. Donizetti's bel canto writing doesn't allow you any escape valves if you're sloppy.’ This intuitive young singer does not indulge in the dangerous game of predicting where singing a rôle like Edgardo will lead him as his career progresses. ‘In terms of where my voice will go in the future, I hate to speculate,’ he states. ‘I like to consider each role individually, [and] I don't like to delegate that consideration to a precise Fach system handed down from on high. If I work on a rôle and think I can effectively convey the composer's intentions through his music, I think it's right for me.’ Why, then, is Edgardo right for him? What aspects of the character compel him to sense that the part is one that he can portray credibly at this juncture in his career? ‘Before he met Lucia, Edgardo sought only revenge,’ Mr. Borichevsky muses, ‘but his love for her soon became all-consuming: it became his ultimate motivation. He was willing to do anything to protect her, even make peace with her brother, his mortal enemy. When she leaves him, he says, the fire inside him is snuffed out, and he ends it all.’ This, Mr. Borichevsky relays, provides a meaningful connection between Opera Carolina’s Lucia and a tragic reality with which today’s audiences still contend. ‘Suicide remains a serious problem in our society, and our dramatization in this production does not glorify the act,’ he says. ‘Nor does it portray Edgardo's behavior as deranged or insane. Often, we too easily dismiss suicidal people as myopic or selfish. The only way to prevent tragedy is to understand its origins—to understand what puts someone in that depressed place. Edgardo has no one. His parents have died, he has no prospects, his love has betrayed him. He has no support. If my performance encourages just one person to empathize with and support someone who is struggling, it will be a success.’

ARTS IN ACTION: Soprano KATHRYN LEWEK, Lucia in Gaetano Donizetti's LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR at Opera Carolina [Photo © by Kathryn Lewek]Bella Lucia: Soprano Kathryn Lewek, Lucia in Opera Carolina’s production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, April 2015 [Photo © by Kathryn Lewek]

Charlotte audiences will also have the great pleasure of witnessing soprano Kathryn Lewek’s inaugural portrayal of Lucia. A thrilling performer whose fiery singing is bolstered by a rock-solid coloratura technique, Ms. Lewek comes to Opera Carolina after a vociferously-acclaimed whirlwind of performances of the Königin der Nacht in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the Bregenzer Festspiele, the Metropolitan Opera, the Wiener Staatsoper, Houston Grand Opera, and, most recently, Royal Danish Opera, where her Queen of the Night won the applause of the Queen of Denmark, Margrethe II. The transition from the Königin der Nacht to Lucia is a journey that has both challenged and thrilled Ms. Lewek. ‘I’ve been incredibly fortunate for the opportunity to sing a rôle I am confident with all over the world,’ she says of her tenure as the Königin der Nacht. ‘Queen has opened doors for me that I never imagined would be available at such an early stage in my career. To already have had major house débuts at places such as the Wiener Staatsoper and the MET is a gift that now allows me to focus more on my craft rather than my accomplishments. Of course, while there still exists a tremendous pressure to uphold a high level of artistry that matches my résumé, I also feel a sense of freedom to enjoy my experiences more fully and objectively, without the constant worries hanging over my head associated with being a young and emerging artist.’ Nonetheless, Ms. Lewek is attentive to the daunting task faced by a young artist endeavoring to make choices that engender a successful long-term career in opera. ‘The most important rule of life to me is a familiar one: actions speak louder than words,’ she intimates. ‘I live by this rule on and off the stage. I [have] spent my life so far working hard rather than convincing others that I could work hard. There are no short-cuts to success, just many different ways of getting there. Carving out a niche in this business is a really hard thing to accomplish, and if it’s not hard—well, then you're doing it wrong, and it’s not going to be worth it! Yes, there is always an element of luck: the "decision maker" of the day woke up on the right side of the bed, ate some particularly good jam and bread for breakfast, the universe converges in your favor, and he happens to be more enchanted by your singing than the person that came before or after you, and voilà—you have a great opportunity in your lap. Are you ready for it? Have you worked your rear-end off so that when this opportunity opens its doors, you were so ready to take the bull by the horns that you practically burst out of the gate with quality, accuracy, thorough research, and also, very importantly, with an open mind and heart? Be prepared every moment of your life like it may be the defining one.’

In approaching Lucia with the open mind and heart that she deems necessary to fully inhabiting a character, Ms. Lewek has been especially aware of the musical and dramatic contrasts between the Königin der Nacht and Lucia and the ways in which these are reflected in both her interpretations and her own life. ‘In preparing for this début, Lucia has actually been a driving force of my vocal life for over a year now, all while I was singing zillions of performances of Zauberflöte! In many ways, she’s had a larger presence in my life over the last year than Queen: she’s been quietly waiting in the wings, untouched and unheard by anyone other than myself and my trusted circle of ears (my teacher, Diana Soviero, and a few special coaches scattered across the globe). In some capacity, I’ve worked on Lucia almost every day whether it be character study through Walter Scott’s original novel, libretto translation, cadenza composition, or general musical preparation. Unlike Queen, she’s with me in the practice room on all my days off from performing, and she’s what I’ve used to warm up my voice on performing days as well. I step off the stage from singing “O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn” [the Königin’s aria in Act One of Die Zauberflöte], and my well-loved, tattered Lucia score is ready to greet me in my dressing room. She keeps my voice warm and healthfully supple for the Queen’s second aria, “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen.” Lucia has kept me safe this entire year of singing endless performances of Queen, because bel canto is truly the most natural and healthy genre of operatic singing. There is no forcefulness or unnatural production in Italian bel canto, only free-flowing athletic and organic vocal velvet. Lucia always reminds me that there are many different colors in my instrument, and that “Der Hölle Rache” is just three minutes—albeit excitingly powerful ones!—of intensely acrobatic vocal pyrotechnics that don’t have to influence how I sing everything else, unless I choose to include that color for a momentary emotional effect.’

‘Bringing Lucia to life over the last week in rehearsals has been an experience that has completely surpassed my expectations,’ Ms. Lewek reveals. ‘I’m extremely fortunate to be in the position that I am in. I am so lucky to be singing with a first-class cast of principals. Opera Carolina has a knack for booking incredible in-demand artists amidst their internationally thriving schedules, and this provides a fantastic opportunity for stage magic to ensue. My co-stars set the bar at such a high level, and I know my own performance will benefit greatly from sharing the stage with them. In particular, since Zach and I are both débuting our respective roles for the first time here in Charlotte, the innocence and inexperience of young love is somewhat personified during our love duet scene in Act One, and yet since we were already good friends before being cast together in this production, our on-stage relationship also has the added benefit of our off-stage friendship. I couldn’t ask for a more talented and artistically generous person with whom to share the stage in this new experience.’ For Ms. Lewek, the most crucial aspect of bringing Lucia to life is finding within herself the dramatic foundation of the character. Then, the music makes sense not just in terms of harmonic progressions and phrasing but as an extension of Lucia’s inner life. ‘All of the characters I play on stage have one thing in common, which is that they all blossom from an inner emotional center within me,’ she says. ‘I strive to bring an authenticity to all the characters I’m privileged to personify by attaching real emotions and personal qualities to each of them. As scary as it is to admit this, the rage that I bring to the stage when singing Queen comes from a very real place, as this is an emotion all of us feel at one point or another—and, in truth, that is more exhausting to me than singing those high-flying Fs. It is impossible for me as an actress to detach my singing energy from my emotional energy, yet all the while I must be sure to keep the safety net around my larynx so I don’t strain. There is an element of madness in the Queen, of course, but Lucia’s madness is of an entirely different kind. There is no rage—only heartbreak, despair, abandonment, and ultimately the need for complete detachment from reality. Real life becomes too difficult for her to bear, and therefore she succumbs to an alternate universe that she fosters in her mind. In the Mad Scene, the stage is crowded with almost the entire cast, yet to her they are only shadows, almost like living ghosts on the perimeter of a life she has left behind. Our director, Bernard Uzan, has very wisely and intuitively designed this production to show the strength rather than the weakness of Lucia. This is a finely complex character realization to play, but [this] ultimately makes her fate completely understandable to me, and also more so to the audience. If Lucia were so weak and faint-hearted as she is normally portrayed, she would easily give in to the wishes of the powerful men around her rather than desperately trying to control the outcome of her life. She literally spends almost the entire opera fighting against the two biggest male influences in her life, her lover Edgardo and her brother Enrico. These two men are highly volatile and energized individuals, almost like two protons that race towards each other with such incredible energy and force that when they collide, with Lucia at the center of it all, what you are left with is a burst of emotional destruction, with particle energy moving in all different directions, while the two protons themselves are completely destroyed and annihilated. What you are left with is the shattered Lucia, suspended in a way as the resulting cloud burst, but constantly and violently spinning back and forth between reality and the dream fulfillment of her union with Edgardo. This Mad Scene is not the typical “float around the stage with a bloodstained dress” that one normally finds in productions of Lucia di Lammermoor. Instead, it is a violent, disturbing, and upsetting scene of inner turmoil, hashed out in front of all who bear witness.’

The elemental energy generated by these singers and Opera Carolina’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor are poised to restore to the opera the glorious spirit of bel canto that has maintained its place in the international repertory despite its absence from many performances. Again adapting the words of Abraham Lincoln to opera, this is a Lucia di Lammermoor destined to prove anew that, far from being the elitist institution many imagine it to be, opera is an art of the people, by the people, for the people.

Opera Carolina’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor opens on Saturday, 11 April 2015, and runs through 19 April. The production then travels to Toledo, Ohio, for performances on 24 and 26 April with Toledo Opera, also featuring Kathryn Lewek, Zach Borichevsky, Hyung Yun, and Maestro James Meena.

To learn more about Opera Carolina’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor and to purchase tickets, please visit Opera Carolina’s website.

Sincerest thanks to the artists for responding to questions for this preview.