It's been a decade since Los Angeles Opera last presented Gaetano Donizetti's “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
Currently at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is a new production by Elkhanah Pulitzer, one of two created by L.A. Opera this year (the other was “Falstaff” last November). LAO's new production of “Lucia di Lammermoor” will be the first main stage production for LAO by Pulitzer, who created the company's 2008 community production of Handel's “Judas Maccabaeus” at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
It's the biggest opera assignment yet for Pulitzer, who is the great-great-granddaughter of Joseph Pulitzer, founder of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper and creator of the Pulitzer Prizes. Her production will use digital imagery by Wendall K. Harrington and scenery by Carolina Angulo, who also designed LAO's production of “Jonah and the Whale,” which will play Friday and Saturday at the cathedral. Christine Crook will make her LAO debut as costume designer and Duane Schuler returns as lighting designer.
The question of whether to revive, rent or create a production surely vexes all opera companies. Finances play a role in the decision but recent improvements and expansions in video and computer-generated capabilities — and the public's delight in them — leave companies with the question of whether to remount a production, create a new one, remodel an existing production or rent a production from another company.
“There are a number of factors at play,” says Christopher Koelsch, LAO's president and chief executive officer. “Tastes, of course, change over time. A production in consideration for revival may no longer reflect the aesthetic direction of the house and its artistic leadership. There are also singers for whom we would wish to produce a particular production or who have a particularly felicitous relationship with a certain stage director. Similarly, there may be a stage director or designer whose work we feel is important to be seen in our community.”
Another factor is that while video imagery and CGI have added dramatic impetus to many new productions, designers — much like artists being asked to alter paintings — are hesitant to tinker with an existing production.
When LAO presented Benjamin Britten's “Billy Budd,” it remounted a production designed in 1985 by Francesca Zambello and seen in Los Angeles in 2000. Zambello left the design intact. “I think once you make a production, you tend to work more on the characters,” she says. “Certainly one can enhance the visuals sometimes, but in this case, as the production is so stylized, I chose to keep it as it was conceived.”
Not only does L.A. Opera rent shows from other companies, it's also active on the flip side. Companies around the world have used more than 50 LAO productions from the company's 29 seasons. Several are currently being shown around the world. Verdi's “The Two Foscari,” which opened the 2012-2013 LAO season, was a co-production with three European companies; it played last December in Vienna and will be mounted this spring at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London.
Among recent LAO productions, one of the most popular is “Il Postino” by the late Daniel Catan, which LAO premiered in September 2010. Since that highly successful debut, the production has been seen in Paris; Italy; Vienna; Santiago, Chile; and at the Cervantino Festival in Mexico. It just returned from Madrid.
Other popular LAO productions are “Il Trovatore,” “Tristan und Isolde” and “L'elisir d'amore” (the latter recently appeared in San Diego). “Salome,” which was part of the company's inaugural 1986-1987 season, was popular for years afterward, says Rupert Hemmings, LAO's senior director of production.
And the calls keep on coming. LAO's 2008 production of “Otello” will play at Houston Grand Opera in the fall and its “Gianni Schicchi,” directed by Woody Allen, will be presented in Madrid next season.
Notwithstanding those rentals (which do pour much-needed dollars onto LAO's bottom line), possible rentals are not the primary concern when the company commissions a new work, says Hemmings.
“If the production is going to be a co-production,” he explains, “then we take into account the needs of all the co-producing companies in great detail.”
This production of “Lucia di Lammermoor” is a stand-alone effort.
“We always hope that a new production will have a long, successful life in L.A. and in other houses around the world,” says Hemmings.
Production qualities aside, “Lucia” almost always succeeds or fails because of the title character, who must rise to the occasion in the famed “mad scene” that is the opera's climax.
“Despite its enormous popularity, ‘Lucia di Lammermoor' isn't easy to produce,” says Placido Domingo, L.A. Opera's general director and legendary opera singer. “There is little point in scheduling this opera without a truly special leading lady.”
Ten years ago, that star was Anna Netrebko; this time around, another Russian coloratura soprano, Albina Shagimuratova, will sing the title role. She certainly knows the part since she comes to Los Angeles from Teatro alla Scala in Milan, where she became the first Russian to sing Lucia. The performance earned review superlatives from at least one source.
Shagimuratova made her L.A. Opera debut in 2008 as the Queen of the Night in “The Magic Flute.”
Joining Shagimuratova will be Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu as Lucia's secret lover, Edgardo; baritone Stephen Powell in the role of Enrico; and bass James Creswell as Raimondo. James Conlon will conduct the L.A. Opera Orchestra. Of note: One of the instruments will be a glass harmonica, to be played by Thomas Bloch.
The opera is set in the Lammermoor Hills of Scotland. “What is it about Scotland,” writes Magda Krance for Chicago Lyric Opera, “that certain Italian composers found irresistible? Perhaps its gloomy castles and misty moors made a more exotic setting for clan rivalries, doomed love, ghosts, madness and bloody murders than the familiar sunny climes of la bella Italia. Just as Giuseppe Verdi found inspiration in Shakespeare's “Macbeth,” so did his predecessor, Gaetano Donizetti, in Sir Walter Scott's “The Bride of Lammermoor.”
How Pulitzer translates all of that into her new production is an eagerly awaited intrigue.
Robert D. Thomas is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.