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Lucia di Lammermoor

Also published in The Rover.

For the next two weeks Montréal sits atop international opera like Humpty Dumpty on his wall. Opera de Montréal’s Lucia di Lammermoor is the best show of the season, a triumph whose success will bring attention to the company. Unfortunately, the production does not match the strength of the cast, and I doubt I’m the only one wondering if the OdM can handle world-class talent.

Lammermoor is Romeo and Juliet if the Capulet daughter had been tricked into marrying Paris, butchered him in one evening, and wandered into a production of Hamlet to try her hand at Ophelia. It is capital tragedy, devoid of subtlety as only operatic melodrama can manage. All emotion must be described as “burning”. It’s enough to make you throw ointment.

A demanding soprano showpiece of geometric bel canto ornamentation and high-altitude exploration, Lammermoor has a glamorous history. Singers like Joan Sutherland (whose career it launched) and Maria Callas set the standard for Lucia, who Anna Netrebko also sang earlier this year to acclaim at the Met. Although I hadn’t heard Eglise Gutiérrez before, the Cuban-American soprano has garnered a spectacular list of awards and honours since graduating from the Philadelphian Academy of Vocal Arts in 2004, making her Carnegie Hall debut that same year.

No surprise then that, despite my late arrival, Row T quickly forgot their crushed toes once Gutiérrez began to sing. She seemed possessed, a portal for sound from somewhere else. She approached technical perfection without losing the edge to take Lucia from girlish to insane (or slighting her acting, which was restrained and effective) and she warmed up instantly, unlike Stephen Costello (her true love Edgardo) whose voice only opened in the second act. He was better anguished than ardent and not quite enough beside the music pouring from Gutiérrez. Frankly, the entire cast sang excellently and yet they sounded like understudies next to her.

Better direction might have helped them hold their own. Baritone Alain Coulombe needed a kick with the interesting part of Raimondo (the chaplain who convinces Lucia that Edgardo is unfaithful, condemning her to murder and madness, while remaining a symbol of official morality). And Jorge Lagunes sang Enrico, Lucia’s villainous brother, with nuance but a bizarre range of jerky, distracting motions. He needed to sit down (he needed to be told to sit down). Oversights like these are most painful when they mar a great performance.

The Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal was so ably prodded by guest conductor Steven White that I found myself wondering what the OSM would sound like under a similarly vigorous baton. The stage design and blocking inspired rather less optimistic thoughts, on the other hand. The sets should have stayed in Dallas with their designer. I wonder why the OdM does not take advantage of its medium size to be a little experimental? Instead we sat before the total output of the local fibreglass industry in a dated and predictable design.

Gutiérrez has already attracted attention in New York and all the places and venues that count in the world of opera. No doubt she will be in the first ranks of sopranos this decade, which means we may not be able to afford her again. Interested in a kidnapping? Write “c/o the greasy barge in Lachine canal”. Include $10 for whisky.