Lucia Di Lammermoor Metropolitan Natalie Dessay Lucia

This is the first time that the Met has repeated a production in its fascinating series of high definition operas. We get the opportunity to compare Natalie Dessay's performance in 2011 with that given by Anna Netrebko two years earlier. Other aspects of Mary Zimmerman's production are essentially the same, both good and bad. We have the Victorian setting which looks good but detracts somewhat from the political context of the opera. There is the imaginative use of ghosts, particularly that of Lucia herself as she urges her lover on to suicide. There is also the irritating addition of a Victorian wedding photographer to spoil the famous sextet.

This 2011 performance is, however, much more successful. First and foremost is the incomparable singing and acting performance of Natalie Dessay but the other roles also benefit from stronger casting with tenor Joseph Calleja in fine voice as Edgardo and Ludovic Tézier chillingly effective as Lucia's venal brother Enrico. I did not find the wedding photographer so irritating this time round and assumed that the scene had been toned down slightly. On replaying the Netrebko version I find that the two scenes are virtually identical. I can only guess that the sextet in the later version was so good that I did not notice the extraneous silliness.

No-one does mad like Natalie Dessay. Particularly effective is the way she picks on unsuspecting members of the chorus to share with her in re-enacting her wedding scene. There are also some rather strange omissions. There is no eery glass harmonica. Also, in what should be the duet between Lucia and the flute, there is no flute. We have to imagine it, just as Lucia is doing. I have seen Dessay's performance in Donizetti's French rewrite of this opera Lucie de Lammermoor. I can only imagine that, at Dessay's behest, the French orchestral parts have been substituted at this point. Dessay finishes the scene with virtually no orchestral accompaniment. This is brave and very moving. The only snag is that the audience does not know when she is finished. The moment passes, the action moves on, and she has to wait for the end of the opera before she gets her well-deserved standing ovation.

Deep in Act II of Donizetti’s opera “Lucia di Lammermoor,” the desperate and doomed title character, deserted by everyone she has trusted and about to be married against her will, cries out that even the ability to weep has left her. “My own tears have abandoned me,” she pathetically laments.

Since Natalie Dessay, playing Lucia at the Metropolitan Opera on Thursday, had not up to that point in the opera appeared to weep, or indeed to look more than perturbed and a little put out, this heartbreaking moment made little sense, and passed unnoticed.

In this revival of Mary Zimmerman’s grayly atmospheric production, there is an empty space where Lucia ought to be. Not that there’s not a soprano onstage, and a redoubtable one, in Ms. Dessay, returning to the company after a two-year absence. Her cool voice has thinned a bit, but it still impresses in coloratura and rises to the score’s climactic moments. The issue is not the voice so much as what that voice should serve: the character.

Ms. Dessay and Ms. Zimmerman have clearly, carefully considered every motion (the soprano’s physical performance Thursday was essentially identical to the one she gave in 2007, when the production was new) and the result is a Lucia almost entirely blank. The main consideration seems to have been avoiding going over the top, being too “operatic.” But in this version, Lucia — that supremely expressive Romantic character, the one who weeps, swoons, trembles and is often, as the libretto describes, simply “beside herself with misery and fear” in a work dominated by passions and blood — is so internal that the audience perceives her only as indifferent and detached.

With an eye, perhaps, to its growing live simulcast audiences, the Met’s recent productions can seem directed at the camera rather than the audience in the theater. Ms. Dessay’s performance suggests as much. Her little fidgets, eye motions and twitches around the mouth register in the high definition of extreme movie theater close-ups, but they disappear in the opera house, along with our interest. By the time she delivers a fine, tensely eerie mad scene, the stakes of the drama — that queasy, distinctively operatic blend of empathy for and exhilaration over the heroine’s degradation — are almost entirely forfeit.

With a thoroughly vacant Lucia, the opera is imbalanced: the men, perversely, are the sympathetic ones here, down to the crisp conducting of Patrick Summers. The manipulative brother Enrico, sung richly and acted with laconic ruefulness by Ludovic Tézier, seems almost reasonable in his heartless demands. Kwangchul Youn had burnished tone and great dignity as the well-meaning chaplain Raimondo. Even Arturo, the arranged husband Lucia murders, was charming as sung by the young tenor Matthew Plenk.

And Joseph Calleja was sensationally ardent as Lucia’s lover, Edgardo, one of the best roles of his young, exciting Met career. In so many productions, the tomb scene that ends the opera seems hopelessly anticlimactic after Lucia’s unraveling, but in this performance Donizetti’s structure finally made sense. It felt more like Edgardo’s tragedy than Lucia’s, so why not let him have the last, gorgeously eloquent word?

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