Lucia Di Lammermoor Natalie Dessay Lyon

CD Review

Here's a curiosity. La Favorita and La Favorite coexisted throughout the past century, and before Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti popularized La Fille du régiment in the 1960s, most opera fans probably knew it as La Figlia del Reggimento. Many of Donizetti's operas have coexisted in both French and Italian versions, a reflection of the fact that Italy and Paris were the dominant hubs of operatic activity in the 1800s, and that their citizens usually expected operas to be given in the vernacular. Lucia di Lammermoor debuted in Naples in 1835; when the opera premièred in Paris four years later, it had become Lucie de Lammermoor.

This required more than a translation of the Italian text into French. Rhythms needed to be changed to fit the French words. There were more drastic alterations, too. Lucia's maid Alisa disappeared in Paris. He was replaced with the servant Gilbert, who, as Henri's (Enrico's) henchman, spies on Lucie and Edgard (Edgardo's) love duet in Act One and tattles to Henri. Thus, Lucie is isolated and made a victim of male ambition almost from the opera's outset. "Regnava nel silenzio" is replaced with an aria that is far less successful in establishing Lucie's fragile emotional state. Raymond (Raimondo) has nothing to sing until the Act Two sextet. The opera's length is reduced by about 25 percent. In no case was Lucia improved on its way to Lucie, and so the present recording must be approached as a novelty, and as an opportunity to hear Natalie Dessay and Roberto Alagna in roles essentially well suited to them – in any language, but preferably in Italian! At any rate, this is the French version's first studio recording.

And, as suggested above, the singers do not disappoint. Dessay is an intelligent singer, and her sound really is more Italianate than French – no featherweight "Minnie Mouse" Lucias here, as we once had from Mado Robin and Mady Mesplé. If other singers have brought more personality to the role, Dessay neither bores nor offends. Alagna makes the most of his chances, rising to grand heights in his final scene, and pouring out heroically indignant tones throughout. The young French baritone Ludovic Tézier makes a favorable impression as Henri, although this is not an opera in which the baritone is given much to do. The other singers are more than serviceable – this recording is derived from January 2000 performances at the Opéra de Lyon – and the chorus and orchestra are well drilled. Conductor Evelino Pidò contents himself with keeping the action moving along, bringing no special insights to the score and – appropriately enough, I guess – little Italian fire to it as well. The sextet, for example, is almost placid.

If you haven't guessed by now, this is not the recording to get if you are looking for a definitive Lucia di Lammermoor. If, however, you are more than unusually fond of this opera – or a fan of either Dessay or Alagna – you probably will find this new release interesting, at the very least.

Copyright © 2007, Raymond Tuttle

Lucie de Lammermoor? Surely some mistake...

But no, this is Donizetti's version of Walter Scott's novel dressed up for the Paris Opèra in 1839. Dressed up? Dressed down, rather: this isn't just Lucia di Lammermoor translated into French - Donizetti's been at it with a pruning knife, and we've even lost the role of Alisa (Lucia's maid)...so our tragic heroine is utterly alone, adrift on a sea of testosterone.

Donizetti specialists are automatically interested; for the rest of us it's the casting of the leads that's the draw: Roberto Alagna as Edgard, without the wife at his side for a change...and Natalie Dessay sings Lucie, a part irrecoverably owned by either Joan Sutherland or Maria Callas, depending which school of opera fanatic you happen across in the foyer. The funny thing is I don't want to compare Dessay to either of them: this Lucie is such a different animal, utterly believable as the naïve, beautiful girl whose forced marriage to a much older man tips her over the edge into one of the most famous mad scenes in opera.

Dessay's voice is a wonder: crystal clear, devastatingly accurate, and with a remarkable power and flexibility...no hint of strain even at the outer limits. Which brings us to Roberto Alagna, who's tended to heave himself at his last few roles on record, with the strain all too evident. This is an altogether happier result: an ardent, impassioned performance, and for once the sense of struggle adds to the weight of the character.

There are no weak links in this cast, and Ludovic Tézier is outstanding as Lucie's scheming older brother, Henri Ashton. Evalino Pidò supports his singers sensitively, sustains the dramatic tension, and the Lyon Opera forces never flag. It's an outstanding recording aswell, warm, detailed, and with a velvety bass that packs quite a punch in the climaxes.

You may not think you need to hear Donizetti's masterpiece in French, but you really should hear Dessay making sense of the title role in a way I've never heard before, and worth the price of admission on her own.

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