It goes without saying that in opera people do things they would never do in real life. The combination of musical momentum and over-the-top storylines makes for extreme drama.
Certainly the protagonists' behavior in the first two new productions of the Met's 2007-08 season is not exactly what one encounters every day. In Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, seen in a new production by Mary Zimmerman, a young woman's existence is torn apart by love and politics. She comes undone, kills her new husband, and unravels in one of opera's famous mad scenes. Verdi's Macbeth, directed by Adrian Noble, features two of the most ruthlessly ambitious characters in opera. They kill, they usurp the throne, they're haunted, they die.
These kinds of onstage operatic collapses are fascinating to watch. But creating the right dramaturgical circumstances for these psychological descents to come across requires uncommon sensitivity and intelligence from a production's creative team, singers, and, of course, the man in the pit.
Met Music Director James Levine conducts both productions, taking on Donizetti's opera for the first time in his career. "Lucia is one of the great masterpieces in a specific operatic style," the maestro says. "This woman is a romantic, she has a certain fragility, her nerves aren't strong. But it's so marvelously done [by Donizetti] that we care very much about her."
French soprano Natalie Dessay brings her acclaimed interpretation of the title role to the Met for the first time. Marcello Giordani as Lucia's lover, Edgardo, and Mariusz Kwiecien as her brother, Enrico, round out the tragic triangle. Director Zimmerman, who won a Tony Award for her adaptation of Ovid's Metamorphoses in 2002, is once more joined by her trusted design team, Daniel Ostling (sets), Mara Blumenfeld (costumes), and T.J. Gerckens (lighting).
"It's an intense, dense, brief opera with a very simple plot," the director says. A trip to Scotland, the setting of Walter Scott's 1819 novel on which the opera is based, provided visual inspiration. The look and feel of Culzean Castle had a strong influence on the design of some of the production's elements.
And then there are the trees.
"Those very intricate, bare branches we saw in Scotland bear a striking resemblance to the human vascular system in the brain, which in Lucia's case is broken," Zimmerman explains. A show curtain featuring these branches suggests this psychological imbalance, just one of the production's elements that underscores the character's unstable behavior.
The famous mad scene in the third act provides a showpiece for the soprano — and, if done right, an opportunity for the audience to go mad themselves. How do singer and director approach the challenge of turning a 15-plus-minute stretch of music with no outward action into a key dramatic moment?
Zimmerman compares the scene to a three-act play: "I'll say [to the singer], 'What's the journey? What is the chain of associations?' You have to give the actress a structure because otherwise it can become too generalized. I think it might be a mistake to say, 'You're crazy. Seventeen minutes — up to you.' It needs to be expressed in really specific ways, a series of small actions that can express externally what's going on internally."
Working with Dessay should make that part of Zimmerman's job a lot easier. Dessay considers herself more of an actress than a singer, which she admits is very unusual in her line of work. Though she has performed Lucia elsewhere with great success, she prefers to come to a new production without too many pre-conceived ideas. "[Mary] will be the one who knows who Lucia is, and I will give her everything I have," she says. "A new director for me is like going to a new planet."
Giordani, who starred in Anthony Minghella's new production of Madama Butterfly last season, says, "This is my second experience working with a director who comes from plays [rather than opera], and I find it very interesting because they teach you different body language. They approach phrasing like acting."
Whatever the outcome, Zimmerman's basic rule is simple: "You have to obey the music."
Maestro Levine will make sure that happens, not just in Lucia but in Macbeth as well. For the Met's production, Russian soprano Maria Guleghina takes on the role of Lady Macbeth, with baritone Zeljko Lucic starring in the title role. Director Noble, who ran the Royal Shakespeare Company for 15 years and has staged many of the Bard's plays, has called on Mark Thompson to design the sets and costumes; Jean Kalman is the lighting designer.
The first of Verdi's three Shakespeare adaptations, Macbeth is based on Shakespeare's shortest and bloodiest tragedy. With most of the protagonists dead by the time the curtain comes down after less than three hours of music, the work is undeniably brief, brutal, and intense.
"I think Shakespeare was very lucky to have Verdi come along and adapt his plays," Noble says. "He understood him profoundly. In Macbeth, he's done some amazing things, particularly by making the chorus such a powerful, insidious, dangerous force."
To create the witches' visual appearance, Noble referred to the work of photographer Diane Arbus. "She photographed lost souls, people who have a power that, perhaps, they are unaware of, who could be possessed by another force. To us, that seemed very appropriate when coming to the supernatural."
While the witches set the drama in motion, the focus of Noble's production is on Macbeth and his wife. Reckless and ambitious, they are perhaps opera's ultimate power couple. "There is an extraordinarily close, volatile, dangerous relationship between them, which I think is based upon a very strong sexual attraction," says the director. "There's a psychological vacuum — probably caused by the lack of children. And their love and lust for each other is made manifest by the assumption of power. It's a pretty deadly cocktail!"
In this production, one of the central images is of a large bed, a symbol of this powerful relationship. It's also the place where Macbeth commits the first crime on his way to the throne.
"The idea to kill Duncan is very strange to Macbeth," baritone Lucic explains, "but he can't resist the challenge. His desire for the crown is what leads him to become a murderer. It's a fascinating study of crime." But for all of Macbeth's criminal energy, the audience still relates to him. He has horrible visions, and his deeds haunt him. "If he were just a brute," Noble says, "he wouldn't have a conscience. That vulnerability is the highway that the audience travels on."
Vulnerable, murderous, and haunted — not so far off from Lucia, though these operas could scarcely be more different. What unites them is the genius of their creators. Not only were they great composers with an unsurpassed gift of musical imagination, but they were also masters of human psychology who knew exactly what it takes to make a person go to extremes.