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Classical 101

On Ghosts and Big Moons: The Met's HD Lucia di Lammermoor

It can hardly be an accident that the same day that would later see the rising of the largest moon in, well, many moons also saw the Metropolitan Opera's live HD transmission of the opera with arguably the most famous mad scene ever composed, Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. Someone, or something, almost certainly had a hand in this happy coincidence.

Coincidence? Maybe. But I like to think not, at least, for the sake of interpreting Mary Zimmerman's staging of Lucia di Lammermoor. We've all known forever that all sorts of strange and wondrous things happen at the full moon -- childbirth, werewolves and madwomen, to name a few seemingly incongruous but noteworthy phenomena. So on Saturday, at the end of Lucia di Lammermoor's famous mad scene -- better stated, the mad scene that made Lucia di Lammermoor famous -- it came truly as no surprise to see the Metropolitan Opera stage clear out, but for a backdrop of crooked and barren tree limbs reaching in silhouette toward a pale and over-large full moon. In fact, to say this not-so-small detail in Zimmerman's mise-en-scène came as no surprise is an understatement. This production was as staid and traditional as they come: period costumes and sets, though shaven of much of the classic Victorian filigree that could so easily clutter the staging and overwhelm the eye (not to mention the sensibilities) of even a large operatic stage. In the intermission between Acts I and II, soprano Renée Fleming interviewed Zimmerman, who, in so many words admitted to her reliance on this opera's literary source, Walter Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor. In particular, Zimmerman noted her conscious desire to bring to the opera stage more of the ghosts that populate the novel. To this end, during Lucia's aria in which she sings about seeing the ghost of a young woman near a well, 'Qual di chi parla, muoversi il labbro suo vedea, e con la mano esanime chiamarmi a sè parea.' (Her lips moved as if speaking, and with her lifeless hand she seemed to call me.), a dancer, attired in sepulchral white and powdered with pancake make-up, appears on stage, the embodiment of the poor woman of Lucia's song. The apparition flits here and there, touches Lucia's face, then swirls down to the bottom of a lichen-covered fountain. It's no problem that Lucia is unaware of the woman's presence; she has seen her clearly enough in her own mind to have determined that her ghostly friend is real. And this is precisely the point. Ghosts, liminal by nature, occupy the space between the living and those resting in peace. What alleged ghost-sighting cannot be explained away as the product of an overactive imagination, or as a symptom (or maybe result) of insanity? I believe this was Donizetti's understanding of all the ghosts that traipse about Scott's Bride of Lammermoor, and I believe staging Lucia's specter as Zimmerman does runs counter to what was, in Donizetti's day, the most nuanced aesthetic understanding of dramatic music.