That Phily Sound

Soaring: Maazel begins his second season leading the Philharmonic.Photo: Chris Lee

In what appears to be a new tradition, the New York Philharmonic started the season with two opening-night concerts, both conducted by music director Lorin Maazel. The first, apparently intended for partygoers, featured a clutch of Verdi arias sung by Samuel Ramey followed by Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, and the next evening, aimed at more serious listeners, offered the world premiere of Stephen Hartke’s Third Symphony and Mahler’s mighty Fifth. I’m no snob, but the opening-night crowd-pleaser hardly seemed to require critical comment, so I skipped it and opted for the meatier program.

Maazel approached the Mahler score in that chilly way of his, presiding over a performance of unparalleled virtuosity. However one responds to his musical personality, the conductor, after just one year as the orchestra’s chief, has the musicians playing at the top of their game. The Hartke Symphony was also gorgeously done, and it is a ravishing new score. In one movement lasting 25 minutes, the piece sets to music an old English elegy by an anonymous eighth-century poet, fragments of verse that brood over ancient Roman ruins and the men who made them—clearly a poignant reflection on the anniversary of September 11. The music is rhapsodically lyrical and beautifully structured, tailor-made for the skills of the Hilliard Ensemble, which sang the soaring vocal lines exquisitely.

The City Opera probably needed a new production of Lucia di Lammermoor, although I’m not sure that Donizetti’s opera really needs what’s currently on view at the State Theater. At least the cast performs with honor. Jennifer Welch-Babidge has the technical goods to handle most of the mad Miss Lucy’s coloratura flights with ease. Her agile soprano, brushed with an appealing quick vibrato that adds an extra measure of vulnerability to her vocal portrait, dances accurately and prettily over the notes, and she descends into madness with almost clinical precision. Stephen Powell is also a tower of strength as her rotten brother, Enrico. Tenor Jorge Antonio Pita as Edgardo makes less of an impression, partly because of the rather raw, husky edge on his tone and a provincial approach to musical matters, but he wins plenty of applause nonetheless.

But ah, that pesky production. Since Welch-Babidge is presently in her sixth month, director James Robinson thought it would be a clever idea to work her pregnancy into the action. Not only is Lucia now conducting an illicit affair with her family’s archenemy and threatening to foil her brother’s plans to marry her off for political gain, but she is also about to disgrace the Ashtons further by producing Edgardo’s illegitimate child.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. For one thing, we’re asked to believe that Arturo, the man Enrico wants Lucia to marry, would neither notice nor care about the obvious condition of his bride-to-be when he first meets her to sign the marriage contract. Perhaps to get around this, the director makes Arturo look like a nerdy youth of about 14 who may not yet know how babies are made, but it’s not enough. Matters get even worse when Edgardo, thinking that Lucia has betrayed him, barges in and cruelly beats up the mother of his unborn child. By the end of Act One, nothing seems to make much sense, and the opera has more or less degenerated into farce.

No doubt when a more virginal Lucia arrives to sing the role, the plot will return to normal. I’m afraid little can be done about Christine Jones’s basic set. It is depressingly bleak and ugly in quite the wrong way, dominated by a curved, ribbed partition with a jagged rim that may give some the impression of corrugated steel but looks to me more like a huge, unappetizing Ruffles potato chip. Beyond that, a lot of fake snow falls during the open-air scenes, horrid stuff that gets on everyone’s clothes even when they are indoors. This misconceived Lucia, a shared production with four other American companies that’s destined for a long life, shows today’s operatic consortium system at its very worst.

That Phily Sound