In The Year Of Our Diva Dessay
by Phyllis Chesler
We stood on holy ground, at least those of us who were lucky enough to be at the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor, starring France’s Natalie Dessay.
I do not say this lightly nor am I suggesting that either Dessay, her audience, or myself were like Moses at the burning bush; only that in secular terms, something out-of-the ordinary took place. Such great artistry inspires awe, gratitude, humility, and a slightly terrified disbelief which, under other circumstances, are emotions that signify an encounter with the divine.
I only hope that the composer, Gaetano Donizetti, was there too because even he would have been overjoyed.
I tried all evening to find a way to describe the quality, tone, and color of Dessay’s voice. I decided that it is a Silver Bell, one that may once have belonged to a Faery. Given Dessay’s magnificent discipline in its service, (she first wanted to be a dancer, then an actress, an opera singer last), that faery-gift now belongs to us and to the ages.
My friend, Lou Santacroce, the consummate opera aficionado who used to interview me on his program “At the Opera” on National Public Radio, was silent, speechless really. For nearly an hour afterwards, he would not speak unless pressed to do so. Even then, he said very little. I think he may have been in shock, stunned. I do not say this lightly either.
Even the great conductor, James Levine, put down his baton at the end of Lucia’s Mad Scene and applauded.
Dessay is both the next Sarah Bernhardt and clearly, the now reigning Lucia. The great Joan Sutherland, with whom one was always assured that each and every note would be nothing less than perfect, lacked Dessay’s extraordinary theatrical talent. Dessay: small, almost elfin (for an opera singer), is a Method actor much like Marlon Brando.
Unlike many opera fans I am not ga-ga (so to speak) about Lucia’s Mad Scene. However, Dessay’s Mad Scene was chilling, fully and terribly realized, perhaps unique as well. She began with a wicked, wild laugh, but then proceeded to evoke an overwhelming terror and pity, not only among the onlooker chorus but among the audience too. There we were, (at least in my case) quietly sobbing, as it became clear that Lucia was really ruined, undone, had passed the point of no return, both in terms of her sanity and her life, and this fact mattered far more than it ought to have mattered since Lucia is not real.
You may see and hear a snatch of her Mad Scene here on YouTube.
Like Isolde (of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde), Lucia dies rather mysteriously. One does not often die of madness or within hours after one has committed a murder. By the way: The real woman upon whom Lucia is based, the Scottish Janet Dalrymple, neither killed her bridegroom on their wedding night nor died herself later that same night. The real Dalrymple had issues with her mother, not her brother, and she may also have been the first Lorena Bobbitt although much is murky here.
I am supposed to know a great deal about women and madness–which was the subject of my first (and bestselling) book with that exact title. Santacroce and I met when he asked me to comment, on-air, about Lucia’s madness. He went on to interview me for the next three years about many other operas.
The experience was thrilling for me; I got to render my interpretation of some great role–only to be happily upended by the latest opera great (Jane Eaglen for example) who had just sung that very role and whose interpretation was very different from my own and who said so. Still, I got many complimentary tickets to the Metropolitan Opera and got to have splendid conversations with Santacroce. At one point, we decided to do a book together, one which an editor at Oxford University Press was interested in publishing until their editor-in-chief shelved the idea.
My first discussion of Lucia’s madness contained these thoughts: Lucia is often preceded by harp music, suggesting that she not quite “of this earth." Ghosts also appear to her (and in this performance, to us as well; the tactic works). But, Lucia’s descent into madness may be entirely man-made. She wishes to marry her true love, her brother forces her to marry someone she has never met and does not love, she begins to somatize her “protest” (she develops “chills and fever”), etc.
However, Lucia does not faint dead away or kill herself–she kills her bridegroom and then goes mad. At this moment in time, I do not agree with what I first suggested, namely that Lucia might have been an incest victim, perhaps at the hands of her cruel brother. This theory would explain why yet another unwanted sexual encounter might provoke a level of anxiety and rage that could result in homicidal madness.
However, I cannot say this now because Dessay’s Lucia does not act this way and her dramatization is so powerful, that an otherwise plausible explanation must be immediately, respectfully, set aside.
Mary Zimmerman’s production was superb, as was Daniel Ostling’s set design, L.T. Gerckens’s lighting, Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes, and Daniel Pelzig’s choreography. The other singers were all stars in their own right. Lucia’s star-crossed lover, Edgardo, sung by Marcello Giordani, also broke my heart. Every singer (Michael Myers, Mariusz Kwiecen, John Relyea, Michaela Martens, Stephen Costello) as well as the chorus were excellent as was James Levine’s conducting; as usual.
I heartily congratulate Peter Gelb, the new General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera for trying to popularize and revive opera. He has set up large screens both outside Lincoln Center and in Times Square so that masses of people, perhaps new to opera or unable to afford the pricey prices, can enjoy it anyway. I want to personally thank him for giving Lucia a new production. I had begun to dread seeing the same-old same-old set of yore.
Operas, even when they are based on historical figures are, essentially, about people whom we do not know, who lived long ago and far away, and who, unlike most of us, were wealthy and royal. Many operas are also based on fictional characters. When these people suffer and die, for whom do we weep? Probably for ourselves and for all humanity who, like flowers (or, as the Psalmist would have it, blades of grass), who bloom but briefly and then die. In opera at its best, we go down singing, our mortal fate glorified by art.
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