Opening the 2009 season with a compelling production of Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” Opera New Jersey marked a set of multiple milestones. For the first time ONJ appeared with its new orchestral partner, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. For the first time ONJ’s performance was in the 1,000-seat Matthews Theater of the McCarter Theater Center. And, for the first time, an ONJ production starred supernova soprano Lisette Oropesa as “Lucia.”
Let’s start with Lucia (Oropesa) She is the indicator for the shifting emotional temperature of the opera. Her absence during the first scene of the opera gives her brother, Enrico (Eric Dubin), and Chaplain Raimondo (Rubin Casas) the opportunity to discuss the misfortunes of the Lammermoor estate. Enrico’s solution is to marry Lucia to the rich and powerful Arturo Bucklaw (Taylor Stayton). Lucia’s beloved, however, is Edgardo of Ravenswood (Jonathan Boyd), Enrico’s long-term enemy.
Lucia finally appears in Scene Two with her maid, Alisa (Cathleen Candia), whom she tells of her devoted love for Edgardo. She also confides to Alisa that she is haunted by ghosts and filled with a sense of dread. Lucia’s late appearance contributes to the dramatic tension. Everybody in the audience knows that Lucia is tricked by a forged letter containing the lie that Edgardo has taken a new love; that Lucia disconsolately marries Arturo, that she kills him, and that she goes mad. Not until after the first curtain can the audience take the measure of the portrayer of Lucia.
Oropesa stopped the show as soon as she finished her first aria as Lucia. She owns a voice that comfortably negotiates all manner of subtly varied emotions and every precipice of technical danger. During the course of the evening she drew, additionally, on athletic prowess and a vast repertoire of body language to convey Lucia’s gradual descent from apprehensive love to despair and irremediable insanity. Changes in the slope of her shoulders, the security of her gait and the timbre of her voice sketched the downward spiral with both nuance and vividness.
Edgardo (Boyd), her lover, was a capable collaborator. With his large, warm, unforced voice, and his dramatic talent, he and Oropesa synchronized the love of the couple, and later, their doomed relationship.
The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra provided solid instrumental support for the vocalists. The smooth and robust sounds of instrumentalists accustomed to performing together lubricated and punctuated the work on stage. Memorable solo orchestral events were a concerto-sized harp solo in Act One, a brass choir at the beginning of Act Two, the notable soprano-flute duo of the “mad” scene (Oropesa is a flutist and knows how to breathe for both voice and flute), and chamber-size cello passages in Act Three.
Conductor Michael Ching led a propulsive reading of the opera with a pace that felt faster than the actual elapsed time. The moments after the “mad” scene when Lucia sings to orchestral accompaniment were as tightly fused as the soprano-flute duet in the “mad” scene. Ching, by the way, is not only a conductor, but a composer. ONJ has presented his “Buoso’s Ghost,” a sequel to Giacomo Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi.” ONJ sponsors a read-through of Ching’s new opera, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on Wednesday, July 15.
The NJSO plays for all three of ONJ’s production. In addition, the ONJ chorus appears with the NJSO in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Richardson Auditorium on July 23.
For its first full-length opera presentation in 2004 ONJ drew on two pianos for instrumental support. The opera company then depended, until this year, on an orchestra consisting of free-lance musicians.
“Lucia” was the first presentation to take place in McCarter’s 1,000-seat Matthews Theater. After beginning life in the tiny Murray-Dodge Theater on the Princeton University Campus, Opera New Jersey moved to the intimate 423-seat Berlind Theater at McCarter. Ticket sales for “Lucia” were for twice as many seats as the Berlind Theater, leaving some empty seats in the Matthews space. “The Mikado,” presented opening weekend in the large Matthews Theater, was sold out.
A cast of uniformly strong voices carried the “Lucia” production successfully. Rubin Casas, a last minute substitution as Raimondo, fitted in smoothly.
Director John Hoomes exploited the drama of the opera. One of the high points was the silence surrounding Edgardo’s throwing Lucia to the ground. The violent moment was accompanied by neither voices nor instruments.
Costume designer Patricia Hibbert did her homework to present an array of clothing appropriate for the 17th century. She avoided Royal Stuart tartans because they didn’t surface until the 18th century. “You’ve got to know your history to get the costumes right,” Hibbert says.
Lighting designer Barry Steele furnished spooky atmospheric miasmas and projections of ghosts. Set designer Corey Wong provided Gothic structures for the setting. I found their spindly daintiness distracting.
The production would have benefited by using a particularly legible font for its English titles. The flaw was not really serious. The excellence of this production would have come through even if titles were omitted.
Lucia di Lammermoor, Opera New Jersey, Berlind at McCarter Theater. Saturday, July 18, 8 p.m., and Sunday, July 26, 2 p.m. Donizetti opera. $15 to $110. 609-258-2787 or www.opera-nj.org.