Corrections Appended: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Warren Puffer Jones’s position at the University and the year of the premiere of “Lucia.” Jones is a D.M.A. student, and the opera premiered in 1835.
“Lucia di Lammermoor”
Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.
Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre
Tickets from $15
We’ve all heard of modern-day “bridezillas” driven over the edge by the stress of marriage. Fortunately, none of them have ever stabbed the groom to death on their wedding night.
But this is exactly what opera’s very own “bridezilla” does in Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.” Arbor Opera Theatre will present a double-cast production of this gory classic starting Thursday.
“Lucia di Lammermoor” is based on a Gothic romance novel by Sir Walter Scott, which takes place in 17th century Scotland. The story centers on two rival clans and their struggle for power. Amidst this feuding, leading lady Lucia falls in love with Edgardo, her brother Enrico’s mortal enemy. When Enrico forces her into marrying another man, Lucia is driven to lunacy and commits the unspeakable act.
“In the end it’s too much for her to handle,” said soprano Kelly Holst, a recent alumnus of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, who will portray the title character on Friday and Sunday. “She caves pretty easily, being enforced by her brother, and that drives her mad.”
On their wedding night, a crazed Lucia pulls a knife on the groom she was forced to wed and brutally murders him. Onstage, she interrupts her own wedding party wearing her bloodstained wedding gown and sings her famous mad scene. This 20-minute aria is a veritable vocal fireworks display and one of the most famous scenes in opera.
“There are moments when (Lucia) is happy in the mad scene,” Holst said. “And then there are moments when she is terrified, and there are moments when she doesn’t know what is going on. When you play them onstage, you have to be really careful that those moments are clear.”
Musically, “Lucia di Lammermoor” fits a style known as bel canto, which means “beautiful singing” in Italian. Bel canto opera, which demands a masterful control of the voice, couples long and seemingly breathless lines of lyric singing with rapid-fire coloratura, a type of vocal ornamentation. When it premiered in 1835, Donizetti’s “Lucia” was the pinnacle of this style, and it still serves as one of its best examples.
“Bel canto is all about the singers,” said conductor Warren Puffer Jones, a D.M.A. student at the University. “So it’s important for them to have a sense of freedom in their singing that really can highlight their voice and highlight the way they sing through the lines.”
In addition to their musical singer-conductor collaboration, Holst and Jones also lead an offstage relationship as husband and wife. Joint enterprises between spouses are not unheard of in opera. In fact, one of the most important recordings of “Lucia” was made by legendary soprano Dame Joan Sutherland and her husband, conductor Richard Bonynge.
“It’s really exciting to do this show with Kelly,” Jones said, “even apart from the fact that we’re married, just because she’s a terrific artist and it’s great to collaborate.”
Although Donizetti’s opera was originally set in 1600s Scotland, Arbor Opera’s production will not include any kilts or bagpipes. In fact, their production has been updated to World War II-era London and makes use of 1940s costumes and makeup.
“We liked the sense of wartime in the 1940s — of there being an urgency to the motives of the male characters,” Jones said. “You can understand that these men might be feeling pressures from the outside world and they’re sort of turning those pressures on Lucia.”
As a college-town opera company, Arbor Opera Theatre provides opportunities for budding young singers to jumpstart their operatic careers. Many of the artists are graduates or students of the University. By featuring these newcomers, the company gives Ann Arbor audiences the chance to see quality, professional productions without having to leave their own city.
For people curious as to whether or not they would enjoy opera, Jones stressed the accessibility of the art form as a powerful expression of the human spirit.
“I think what’s really great about opera is that in general it has very distilled emotions — it’s very human,” Jones said. “Whereas modern movies are often about what happens … opera is about what people feel.
“My one piece of advice I give to people who are coming to operas for the first time is: Don’t expect things to happen,” he added. “If you expect things to happen you’ll be disappointed because not a whole lot happens in terms of action.
“But there’s a lot of emotional content. And that I think is very easily appreciated by almost anybody.”