Monday, October 23, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Tiny Lucia's big voice heads up stellar cast

Seattle Times music critic

First, you need a great Lucia.

But assembling Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" requires considerably more than a stellar soprano capable of negotiating the high-wire coloratura of the Mad Scene. And while Seattle Opera's new "Lucia" has just such a soprano in Harolyn Blackwell, the company also has a first-rate ensemble cast of impassioned principals, all expert and committed singers who give this gothic tragedy a real run for its money.

It doesn't take director Stephen Terrell and lighting designer Robert Wierzel long to set up the polarities and antagonisms of this opera: during the overture, in fact, when three dramatic chords produce three rays of light on the dark stage, illuminating in turn the main characters of the drama. We have the fragile Lucia; her beloved, Edgardo, who is the deadly rival of Lucia's family; and her brother, Enrico, who will stop at nothing to break up this twosome and marry Lucia off to the one man who can restore the family fortune.

Awash in a sea of tartan, the cast is enacting an 18th-century drama that sometimes seems at odds with Edie Whitsett's sets - but then, those sets sometimes are at odds with each other. The opening scenes, with a stylized rocky backdrop and a forest inhabited only with Stonehenge-like obelisks, suggest something considerably more modern than the castle scenes, with their traditional stone staircase and banners. Enrico appears to be presiding over a barbecue at one point (it's actually a sort of free-standing fireplace in his chambers).

Staging "Lucia" amid all this is quite a challenge. Terrell doesn't try for high-concept here; he does give the singers consistently interesting things to do, however, and is adept at putting together the sorts of scenes that often cause operatic traffic jams.

Saturday was Blackwell's debut in the role of Lucia, and there were a few minor slips to prove it (covered adroitly by conductor Edoardo Muller, whose pacing of the score was admirable). Vocally and dramatically, this is a role that is perfectly suited to Blackwell; the voice is the right size, the right timbre and has the right flexibility for this coloratura challenge. Agile and clear, her soprano soars and floats like an eagle on an updraft. The two big E-flats in the Mad Scene were right on target; so were her duets with tenor Paul Charles Clarke, an Edgardo of considerable passion and subtlety who generates a lot of excitement in this role.

Blackwell is a visually effective Lucia; she is tiny and fragile, capable of leaping up on the banquet table during the Mad Scene and singing some of the most terrifying passagework while crouched on her knees. Terrell uses her size, and that of the big and burly Gordon Hawkins (as the ruthless Enrico), to great advantage in the staging.

Hawkins gives a portrayal of considerable strength and depth, using his powerful baritone to show how angry and vengeful Enrico is, and how he is able to manipulate his sister in the guise of brotherly concern. Raymond Aceto does a masterly job as Raimondo, the one figure who supports Lucia. Joseph Frank is an appropriately sinister Normanno; Sarah Elouise Mattox does impressive work as Alisa; and Kenneth Gayle sings well as the hapless Arturo. Beth Kirchhoff deserves kudos for the fine chorus, and orchestral soloists Scott Goff (flute) and Valeria Muzzolini (harp) deserve praise.

With such a cast, no wonder opera general director Speight Jenkins decided to restore three traditional cuts in the score, showcasing his singers and the sextet ensemble. The more "Lucia," the better.

Opera review

"Lucia di Lammermoor," Donizetti opera in Seattle Opera production; Edoardo Muller conducting, staging by Stephen Terrell; Opera House, Saturday night (opening-night cast also sings Wednesday, Saturday, Nov. 1 and Nov. 4; two alternate principals appear Friday and Nov. 3); 206-389-7676.

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