Romeo and Juliet in Scotland. That is the easiest way to sum up Gaetano Donizetti's dramatic opera, Lucia di Lammermoor.
It is, perhaps, unfair to summarize this opera so succinctly, when it is so famous, so much a "classic" of the opera genre. Following the links on Wikipedia, I learned that Lucia was based on a Waverly novel by Sir Walter Scott - The Bride of Lammermoor - which in turn was apparently based on true events. That might explain why it is somewhat more credible, and more compelling, than Romeo and Juliet, even though the plot runs nearly parallel.
The Ashton family is archenemies with the Ravenswood family (what a splendid name!). As these things go, Lucia Ashton (Anna Netrebko) falls in love with Edgardo Ravenswood (Piotr Beczala). She happens to have a brother, Enrico (Mariusz Kwiecien), and because he is a baritone, we know whose side he's not on. Taking her love for Edgardo as a betrayal, Enrico schemes to force his sister into a marriage to Lord Arturo Bucklaw, a political ally. It does not get better from there.
The story is dreadful in every way, while the music is wonderful. Unfortunately, I had watched all the best clips before watching the whole opera, so I didn't enjoy it as much as I could have. The themes are stirringly beautiful, from the most well-known group number "Chi mi frena in tal momento" to the duet
"O sole, più ratto," with its bloodthirsty lyrics and (oddly) cheerful melody. I was constantly torn between shuddering at the storyline and savoring the beautiful music. Maybe if Romeo and Juliet had been a bel canto opera, I would have liked it, too.
I'm no opera critic. I thought the performances, by the same trio that starred in Eugene Onegin, were great. Kwiecien played an absolutely sinister, psycho brother, and Beczala again sang the well-intentioned hero character with sincerity and emotion. I'm not sure Lucia is Netrebko's role, but she did an excellent job as far as I could tell, lending some reality to a role that would be hard to portray. I always like her heartfelt interpretations, and I'm looking forward to seeing her in Iolanta in February.
The costumes and setting were well done. It did bother me that they were historically impossible - that is, this production is set well after the historical events that are supposed to coincide with it. However, this is a common fault of modern productions and can (kind of) be overlooked.
Honestly, Lucia is as dramatic, dark, and dreary as 19th century operas get, and yet if that doesn't phase you, I would recommend it as a first opera. It's the most fast-paced opera I have seen; it feels shorter than most, even though it isn't. The music is great and the performances are great. It's a staple of opera repertoire, and you'll want to see it eventually if you get into opera at all. Zero stars for the plot, five stars for everything else.