Sopranos who are able to sing the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor with a relatively fresh voice well into their fifties and after thirty years of activity are far and few between; even fewer are those who manage to be physically believable as a teenage girl in distress. I must confess to shaking my head in disbelief when I read the name of Sumi Jo cast as one of the three Lucias in the time-tested Graham Vick production of Donizett’’s masterpiece (opening night’s honour was bestowed on Italy’s current coloratura darling Jessica Pratt). My last encounter with the Korean soprano took place about fifteen years ago in a Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera, where she showed her usual qualities (pure vocal production, infallible pitch, remarkable extension and agility) as well as her flaws, namely an expressively listless rendition of Gilda, with much of that doll-like demeanour once so common in the interpretation of this role. Recently she has returned to the limelight thanks to her questionable Adalgisa in the even more questionable Norma recording starring Cecilia Bartoli, and last year her Rossini Rosina elicited negative reviews. My rightly justified apprehension however dissolved as soon as she started her Act I cavatina, which immediately showcased her current limits as well as her notable and ultimately compensating merits: her middle register once small and pure, has decidedly become larger, even a little blowsy, losing some crispness while acquiring more volume as well as a strange distortion of the vowel articulation, a rather unusual involution for one of the few foreign singers with a once perfect Italian diction. Her top is still secure and well produced, though lacking the insouciance of her best years, and her habit of bringing her hand to her cheek whenever going above the stave has become more intrusive. Her agility is precise, such as for instance the very neat chromatic scales of the phrase “l’inumano tuo rigor” in her Act II duet with the baritone, and her fine legato and long breaths are still intact. The mad scene did not set off to a good start, as in the recitative the soprano was clearly attempting to artificially simulate a child-like voice, with the whitish open central register so typical of prewar Italian light sopranos. The exclamations “Il fantasma!” are among the most insidious traps of this opera, and giving them the right weight is no easy task: if taken lightly they go unnoticed, but giving them too much emphasis may lead to unintentional comedy, as almost happened here. Fortunately with the larghetto she found again the right sense of measure, and the cadenza, albeit not immaculate, had an undeniable theatrical flair, the more surprising if considering that she has, and not always unfairly so, been often charged with excessive restraint. The audience welcomed her big scene with a long warm ovation.
Yijie Shi is a tenor I have long unreservedly admired in the Rossini repertoire or in lyric roles such as Fenton in Falstaff, where he can flaunt a very sturdy technique, a homogeneous unconstricted voice production resonating in the so called “maschera”. In Lucia he displayed once again signs of a superior vocal civility, lovingly shaping phrases such as “io di te, memoria viva”, exhibiting a beautiful legato and a wide range of nuances, dynamics and winged mezzevoci in either the first act duet and the death scene, where unfortunately the conductor was not able to impart the same magic to the cellos. Edgardo however must also engage in dramatic scenes (the curse and the Act III duet with the baritone) and find desperate, furious accents which at first sight do not seem to be too compatible with the Chinese tenor’s vocal structure. Although it is incontestable that such situations are not his elective field, Shi was able to render credibility to this wild side, too, and in any case I am not fond of those tenors who show up cursing and threatening verismo style, and wreak havoc on the music; my ideal Edgardo is someone who respects all the composer’s indications, as Yijie Shi does, even performing the written E flat in alt to the soprano’s high C at the reprise of “Verranno a te sull’aure”, and a great one to boot.
Christian Senn’s Enrico, never creepy, sinister or surly, was just a man who resorted to force her sister into an unwanted marriage because he had no other choice; this character is often viewed (and portrayed) as a run of the mill villain, but I wonder how many of us, facing the prospect of execution, would behave differently. His attractive dark baritone was consequently always controlled and aristocratic. Gabriele Sagona’s timbre has a tight vibrato that I do not find unpleasant, and moreover, despite his young age he was able to convey Bidebent’s necessary gravitas; his aria “Cedi, cedi o più sciagure”, irrefutably the weakest set piece in the opera, vastly benefited from his imaginative phrasing. Among the secondary roles Emanuele D’Aguanno was an sweet-voiced Arturo, Simona Di Capua (Alisa) gave an essential contribution to the stretta of the Act II finale performed without cuts, while Saverio Bambi’s timbre was way too grating and strident, even for an unpleasant and unctuous character such as Normanno. However the fly in the ointment was Fabrizio Maria Carminati’s enervated unimaginative, passionless conducting, which wrapped the opera in a torpid atmosphere.
Just a few words need to be spent on Graham Vick’s mise-en-scène: first unveiled in Florence in 1996, it’s one of the English director’s less controversial, more traditional productions. Very easy on the eye and full of evocative imagery, it has travelled all over the world and stands the test of time.
Photo credit: Pietro Paolini/Terra Project/Contrasto