Lucia Ashton is a madwoman, but she didn’t start out that way.
Like Juliet Capulet, she falls in love with someone from a rival family and is under extreme pressure to marry someone else. Lucia finally cracks under the demands of her family and the absence of her beloved, and like Juliet, she perishes.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s presentation of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” gives spine and sinew to this tragic tale with a cast that shines amid shadow-filled Scottish castles and landscapes.
American soprano Susanna Phillips, an alum of the Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center, has the title role. Her resonant coloratura hits the peaks and mines the valleys of this early 19th century composer’s rigorous, rippling vocal lines, all the while breaking our hearts as the conflicted, tortured young heroine. Edgardo, Lucia’s love, is sung by Italian tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, whose voice blends enchantingly with Phillipps’ and who matches her in passionate intensity and beauty of tone.
Enrico Ashton, Lucia’s brother, desperate to secure his family’s safety, forces his sister into a loveless marriage with a wealthy political friend. American Brian Mulligan has a commanding baritone voice and gives Ashton a strong, malevolent presence. American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn is his advisor Raimondo, and to him falls the task of convincing Lucia to keep the peace by following her brother’s demands. That he succeeds only furthers the tragedy.
Lyric favorite Catherine Malfitano, an American soprano who has sung in 20 operas at the Civic Opera House, directs this drama of conflict and turmoil, and her staging of the famous mad scene is chilling. Phillips, barefoot and wearing a loose white shift, is perched at the top of a long set of open castle stairs. She descends them one by one, singing with a ferocious concentration that reveals her haunted state of mind.
Throughout the opera Lucia’s most embellished arias are accompanied by a flute. At curtain call opening night, Phillips leaned toward the orchestra pit and gave individual applause to Jean Berkenstock, Lyric’s principal flutist. The soprano then pretended to be playing a flute, indicating to the audience how much she appreciated Berkenstock’s graceful partnership.
Donizetti’s score is pure bel canto, brimming with luscious ornamentation and glorious, familiar melodies. Conductor is Massimo Zanetti and, once again, the Lyric chorus delivers a warm, malleable sound that’s a joy to hear.
“Lucia di Lammermoor” runs through Nov. 5 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. Call 312-332-2244, ext. 5600 or visit lyricopera.org.