Rife with foreboding, studded with the clichés of romanticism (a fatal love, a ferocious storm, a ruined tower, a haunted fountain, a madwoman), Gaetano Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor, " which opened Saturday at the Ordway Center in Minnesota Opera's exceptional, double-cast production, has held the stage since its 1835 premiere -- the only non-comic bel canto opera with a continuous performance history. If not an unequivocal masterpiece -- the music ranges from the sublime (the Act 2 sextet) to the oddly chirpy -- "Lucia" is a repertory mainstay. It helped fuel the bel canto revival of the 1950s and '60s. And its mad scene, a favorite topic of feminist musicology, has made the career of more than one now-legendary soprano.
It's too early to bestow legendary status on Alabama-born Susanna Phillips, the Lucia of the opening-night cast, but she is, as pollsters say, headed in the right direction. Possessing an opulent instrument, Phillips has all the agility her role requires. But she is no wind-up nightingale: her coloratura is about communication, not display. Her quiet singing, with its floated, other-worldly high notes, is exquisite; her acting, lit with intelligence, is charismatic enough to hold the audience's gaze throughout her quarter-hour mad scene (which in this case ends in suicide).
The men surrounding her have been artfully chosen. As Enrico, her blinkered brother, James Westman wields his potent baritone to chilling effect, leaving no doubt that his character's callous treatment of Lucia drives the action. As Edgardo, her beloved, tenor Michael Spyres sounds properly heroic; though running on fumes, he's particularly touching in the final scene. Ben Wager (Raimondo), A.J. Glueckert (Arturo) and John Robert Lindsey (Normanno) sing strongly; Victoria Vargas' Alisa is an island of sanity.
At first, director James Robinson seems a bit hamstrung by set designer Christine Jones' hulking, corrugated icebergs, which move about the stage to no apparent purpose and seem intended as a harsh, anti-romantic corrective to this egregiously tuneful opera. But in the second half, with its looming, stylized moon, set and score achieve something like harmony.
Robinson is a master of the telling detail. He introduces Lucia by having her make a snow angel (perfect for Minnesota). He gets enormous mileage from her wedding dress -- before, during and after the ceremony. He's unafraid of the eroticism of the mad scene. And he manages to sustain a modicum of tension in the work's post-climactic closing minutes.
Leonardo Vordoni conducts with a light touch and Italianate flow; flutist Michele Frisch and harpist Min J. Kim deserve solo bows. The chorus sings with articulate vigor.