Conservative retrenchment is in the air at the Metropolitan Opera, if this fall's regressive productions of The Marriage of Figaro and La Traviata indicate a trend. The trivial new Lucia di Lammermoor is even more alarming, a staging of Donizetti's bel canto study of murder and madness that harks back to an operatic past of faceless direction and warehouse scenery that I thought had vanished for good. Lily Pons, the Met's preferred Lucia of the thirties and forties, would have felt right at home here, daintily losing her reason amid Ezio Frigerio's generic castle rooms, towers, and parks, dreary re-creations of old Scotland without a spark of visual distinction or originality. No doubt darling Lily would also have approved of the noninterventionist blocking devised by Nicolas Joël, who cannot even get a chorus on- or offstage gracefully, let alone liven the action with dramatic tension or character development. I realize that the Met is probably still reeling from its last Lucia production, an experimental feminist interpretation by Francesca Zambello that went haywire somewhere along the line, but at least that misguided effort was not completely brainless.
Only a diva of spirit, imagination, and vocal éclat would be able to seize the moment and make an effect in these vapid surroundings. Unfortunately, Ruth Ann Swenson is not that sort of singer, and whatever potential she may possess to excel as Lucia goes unrealized. Her soprano has winning qualities of freshness and purity, but the voice, at least as she uses it, has little coloristic or emotional variety. Beyond that, her vocal production lacks clarity in midrange, leaving clean articulation of rapid passagework and a meaningful projection of the text pretty much to the imagination. There were also problems with the top of the voice at the first performance -- a Lucia who cannot cap her Mad Scene with a stunning and secure E flat will inevitably let down an audience. A powerfully individual statement of this classic coloratura role is still possible, even within the context of such a passé production. In their very different ways -- and often amid even tackier sets and with less directional help -- Callas, Sutherland, Scotto, and Sills were all compelling Met Lucias who set vocal and dramatic standards that Swenson's bland, one-dimensional portrait fails to match.
The performance's sole redeeming virtue lies in the Edgardo of Ramón Vargas, whose ingratiating tenor mingles sweetness and virility to excellent effect -- and what a relief to hear, at the end of a long, tedious evening, singing of such musical elegance and expressive nuance. Roberto Frontali and Alastair Miles make little of Enrico, Lucia's bullying brother, and Raimondo, her sanctimonious tutor; and no one is helped by Carlo Rizzi's limp musical direction.