The issue with having a transformative experience in the arts is that it opens the door to a lifetime of disappointments. I fell completely for opera when I saw Natalie Dessay in Mary Zimmerman’s production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the Metropolitan Opera in 2007, and all that has given me is nearly a decade of underwhelming, non-life-altering Lucias—including from Dessay herself when she took the role on again a few years later.
I greet each Lucia with high standards and tempered expectations, recognizing that you never get to experience that great high of a first love again. But I keep coming back like it’s a bad lover—maybe this time it’ll be different, maybe it was just that the timing was off, maybe we can get back to how it was…
Heartbeat Opera’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” performed at the Theatre at St. Clement’s in New York City, came at me as if that droopy lover had dropped 20 pounds, finished a degree, and gotten a mohawk. I skipped giddily out of the theater wanting to shout at the world: Have you heard about this thing called opera?!
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This production opens silently with a woman lying in a hospital bed at an asylum, reminiscent of Stefan Herheim’s 2012 “La Bohème” at the Norwegian National Opera. The bed is upstage behind a gauzy curtain. A radio crackles to life playing the “Lucia” overture before five musicians march onstage and start playing the music live.
“Lucia di Lammermoor” is 19th century melodrama and hysteria at its peak. It’s a Romeo and Juliet story as Lucia falls in love with Edgardo, from her rival family. Her brother tricks her into marrying someone else, telling her Edgardo has been unfaithful, but as soon as she signs the marriage document, Edgardo rushes in and the truth is revealed. In a completely logical response, Lucia stabs her new husband and sings a famous 20-minute coloratura mad scene.
Setting an opera known for its mad scene in an asylum may not be particularly inventive, but the way Heartbeat uses the concept is dazzling. What we watch in this production is this mad girl, sung by Jamilyn Manning-White, imagining herself both as Lucia and as performing the role of Lucia while she hears it on the radio. The score was arranged in part by thinking about how a mad person would hear it, Louisa Proske, co-artistic director of Heartbeat and director of “Lucia,” explained in an interview.
“It’s really like a completely different vision of the score,” Proske said.
She’s not exaggerating. Daniel Schlosberg made the arrangement and led the musicians from the piano. The chamber ensemble Cantata Profana serves as Heartbeat’s orchestra with piano, cello, clarinet, guitar and percussion, and choruses were cut to bring the production down to 90 minutes. Rather than simply minimizing Donizetti’s score to fit five musicians, Schlosberg reinvented it.
The musicians were visible throughout on stage right, all the better for the audience to see how inventive this arrangement was. It was fascinating, if at times distracting, for instance, to watch percussionist Bill Solomon using a string bow on cymbals. To create the music of the mad scene, John Kossler strummed a distorted electric guitar while Schlosberg bent down to tap at a tinny toy piano on the floor next to the piano bench.
“[Our production] is also displaying Dan’s genius and his sense of dramatic poise and artistry,” Manning-White said in an interview.
Manning-White interacted with the musicians in the staging, making them part of the story. They worked closely during rehearsals to have a high collaborative impact.
“It’s thrilling, and it’s putting the responsibility heavily on the players—musical players, dramatic players,” Manning-White said.
Proske put a major emphasis on acting, building a more theatric atmosphere. She and Manning-White met several years ago while Proske was at the Yale School of Drama and Manning-White was at the Yale School of Music. They previously collaborated in a Yale project that combined the two schools, helping to train singers in theatrics and directors in music.
The difference in backgrounds leads to some learning curves.
“She brings out the hungry actor in me and she is very meticulous in what she wants in the notes she gives me,” Manning-White said about Proske. “Trying to marry that with the technical demands of this role is challenging, but as we were singing, Chloe [Treat, choreographer] and Louisa were so understanding and flexible when I’m saying, ‘this is a tricky passage and I have to be upright.’ ”
Especially in a production where she’s a delirious asylum patient for the whole opera, the character of Lucia carries the risk of seeming cartoonish and over-the-top. But though Manning-White leaned heavily into the role, it didn’t become unbearable.
“It takes someone truly a little bit crazy and incredibly skilled and brave to perform this part in this production,” Proske said.
Manning-White’s singing was technically fit to meet the heavy demands of the role and filled the small theater. Certainly you’d expect a soprano chosen to sing Lucia to be able to sing it well, but more interestingly you felt a certain authenticity with Manning-White’s Lucia, as if, like Proske suggested, she’s acting out her own passion.
Proske deliberately made the titular role more active. She said productions that make Lucia seem like a passively naïve and easily manipulated young girl frustrate her.
“I think she’s absolutely wild and reckless and anarchic and joyful and just full of life in the first scene—and has some cruelty in her as well,” Proske said.
This was why Proske decided to put the act of the stabbing onstage, as it shows Lucia’s rebellion. Typically the stabbing occurs offstage and the mad scene is sung with a chorus of wedding partygoers surrounding Lucia. At Heartbeat, Lucia is seen onstage flirtatiously approaching her empty hospital bed and then furiously stabbing it. Blood comes out of the pillow and she coats herself with it. The hospital bed is brought to center stage as she sings the mad scene. She is by herself onstage with the musicians, interacting occasionally with Schlosberg, for most of it. At one point the other cast members come out and change her out of her blood-covered hospital gown into a fresh one.
“It’s her wild, desperate outcry against this world of mostly men that’s closing in around her and putting her into this straitjacket of marriage,” Proske said.
The production ends with Manning-White back on the hospital bed, twitching in madness, as the lights slowly fade. When the lights came back on for curtain call, Manning-White gave the audience a Cheshire Cat winking grin of success and leapt up to take her well-earned thunderous applause.
“I’m living the best Christmas morning dream ever. It is so gratifying to debut this—it’s my first full Lucia—to debut this role in this kind of way that acting is as equally important and it’s a beautiful marriage between the singing and the acting,” Manning-White said. “To do that with such an inventive, creative, unique production is remarkable. To share it with a wide range of ages of audience members is truly a blessing. It’s something that you can’t help but bounce.”
It’s hard to disagree with that. Heartbeat turned “Lucia di Lammermoor” on its head to create something new, from plot to the music itself, while staying true to the origins. This production shows the power that smaller companies have to be able to take creative risks with traditional pieces and to have each member of the cast and crew work so closely to build something together.
Heartbeat Opera aims to bring new audiences to the art form. But for us veterans, a production like this “Lucia” is honestly reinvigorating. Tucked in a small midtown theater, I remembered why I got so excited about opera in the first place. Like a 2007 Dessay cadenza, it’s almost maddening to convince yourself something this magical is made purely by human force. ¶
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