Last night, after attending Purcell's (or, rather, Mark Morris's) King Arthur at the City Opera (Purcell and the singers and dancers got applause; Morris got some boos; radiant, he shanti'd to us as usual, and gave the finger to the balconies - shame and abashment are not to be found in his gestural vocabulary), I sneaked over to the Met for Act III of Lucia di Lammermoor. (My review of King Arthur will appear on www.operatoday.com.)
I'd seen the controversial Mary Zimmerman production of Lucia and the same cast except for the tenor three times last fall, liking it less each time, feeling the singers were out of their depth and the director out of her proper employment - she seems neither to understand opera nor to respect it, nor to want to understand it better - and I was not wild about the sets either. But my pal Suzanne was in town from Wisconsin, determined to get into Lucia, so that she'd even bought herself a $15 standing room upstairs. I told her not to be silly; we strolled the plaza before the performance and found her a nice Dress Circle seat for sale instead (dodging the scalpers, out in force), from a group of South African tourists one of whose group was ill. Suzanne went to Lucia, I went to Arthur with friend Tom, and she gave me the standing room to do as I wished with.
So the moment Arthur was done, I ran over to the Met, got a fistful of Grand Tier tickets from departing suburbanites, and whisked Suzanne to that lower level, bumping into Dan Foley of the Ottocento Grand Opera (Mercadante e Pacini per sempre!) and Gabriel, who congratulated me on my published letters in the Times and The New Yorker. (In the old days, he would have congratulated me on my essays in the Met program, but the Gelb folks have decided I am too esoteric for their masses - moi! - and these no longer appear though they can still be found on line at Playbill.) Suzanne had saved me half a brownie.
She didn't care for the production, "but I wanted to see your Polish prince as Enrico. He looks great!" Yes, well, Kwiecien always does that. But I wish he would sing, not scream. "You're right," she said. "When he doesn't scream, the voice is caramel. You could just melt into it." "Yes, he's utterly seductive - when he doesn't scream. Catch him in Mozart - he doesn't scream in Mozart." I can't decide whether to go stay with Suzanne later this month to catch the Mariusz's Onegin in Chicago. "Oh go ahead," she said. "I'll lend you some frequent flyer miles."
We nestled in Row C center and the curtain rose. Act III of this production, you may recall, is a grand curving staircase to a crosswalk and, in the final scene, a huge rusticated arch beside a graveyard. The backdrop for the whole act is a huge ominously blue night sky with a cratered moon the size of forty thousand pizzas filling most of it. "I love the backdrop," I told Suzanne, "but don't ask me what it has to do with the story." She considered. "It's the moon - isn't that the woman's ruling planet? And it's supposed to drive people mad?" "That's very good - thank you!" said I.
Nothing like fresh eyes on confusion to straighten matters out. Onstage (after some mild hysteria between Kwiecien and Filianoti and some decent singing with the beginnings of an old man's wobble from Relyea, who is too young for such a trait, Dessay, having gone mad on her wedding night and stabbed her husband 29 times, came dribbling down the stairs dabbled in scarlet and sang a much stronger mad scene than she had last fall. I think she has got the measure of the house, perhaps. Still not Sutherland, still an unwieldy trill, but impressive. "I saw her do it in Chicago two years ago," Suzanne said. "That was a lovely production. But she's marvelous tonight." So was Filianoti in the tomb scene. I shut my eyes when (the director's idea) the ghost returned so I could focus just on the singing. It shouldn't be necessary to do that at an opera, but these concept directors make me crazy that way.
The Moon for Madness, especially in overwrought, sexually abused women. Very good. I still eagerly await Mary Zimmerman's last opera staging. She just doesn't think singing is dramatic, and I do.
"And I love this opera," whispered Suzanne as we departed. (So do I.) "Of course we have to see it again tomorrow." That was a joke. Tonight we're going to Tristan und Isolde, which isn't quite the same story, though it shares the Celtic element and the darkness and the double deaths.