Opera Carolina’s production of “Lucia di Lammermoor” at Belk Theater (continuing Thursday and Sunday) is elegantly set, handsomely lit, fleetly conducted, and sung with high virtuosity, especially among the principals.

With “Lucia” (1835) Gaetano Donizetti wrote his greatest hit. It has seldom – if ever – left the repertoire. It is one of those works that is known or remembered as soon as it is heard, like the Lizst 2nd Hungarian rhapsody, which everyone knows from cartoons, and for similar reasons.

Snippets of “Lucia” appear in the unlikeliest places, in Howard Hawks’ “Scarface,” and Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice,” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” for example. Both Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary go to hear it in their respective novels. It has even been borrowed from by Bugs Bunny and the Three Stooges.

No one can write a catchier melody than Donizetti. The sextet is electrifying. The mad scene, in which Lucia becomes a broken heart in a bloodstained nightgown, is still shocking to this day.


Newcomers bring freshness to Opera Carolina’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’

A broken heart in a bloodstained nightgown

The plot is simple, with a family resemblance to Romeo and Juliet: Lucia is in love with Ravenswood, the last survivor of the Scottish clan her family has feuded with for generations. Their union is furiously opposed by her brother, Ashton, who wishes to marry her off. His success in estranging the lovers leads to the death of Lucia’s other suitor, Bucklaw, by Lucia’s hand, and then – after the fabled mad scene – to the suicide of Lucia herself, and then of Ravenswood, who slays himself among his ancestral tombs as the bier of Lucia is carried by.

Like Shakespeare, Donizetti gives the quality of truth and poetry to these implausible proceedings.

Lucia is a bel canto opera. This means “beautiful song,” of course, but this term doesn’t quite cover the element of high risk that goes with the turf.

What bel canto requires with its hyper-ornamental vocal lines is the singing equivalent of the acrobatic skills of both a trapeze artist and a figure skater. Kathryn Lewek as Lucia proved herself equal to this challenge. She managed the extravagant fioratura (“flowers” or ornaments) with not only accuracy but style, not to mention beautiful diction, and she hit her high notes squarely.

Lewek was best on opening night in the first two acts. The fabled mad scene was technically a tour de force but resembled a bloom still in fold, missing something of the heart-wringing piteousness that the greatest Lucias have brought to the role. In terms of skill, though, it was a stupefying performance.

Yun Hyung’s menacing Lord Henry Ashton was also sung with great flair. He has a big voice but a supple one, and sang this treacherous part featly. He tends to overdo the mannerisms of villainy. It gave a certain staginess to his otherwise fine work.

Zach Borichevsky (Ravenswood) has a sweet, lyric tenor voice that can thrill as much with a finely shaded pianissimo as with a high note hit cleanly without strain. He was at his best in the lament “Tombe degli avi miei” in the last act. As a performance it was well sung, but his Ravenswood was as underacted as Yun Hyung’s Ashton was oversauced.

Kristopher Irmiter, who always brings insight to his roles, was not in top form to begin with on opening night, but soon warmed to the part of Chaplain Norman. Joshua Stewart was a hail-fellow-well-met Bucklaw; he is a singer one would want to hear more from, as is Megan Miller, the Alice. Noah Rice as Norman has been heard in better shape before.

James Meena conducted this “Lucia” with a lightness and brio that lifted the score. The strings had a lustrous sheen. Mention should be made of the flutist, Amy Orsinger Whitehead, who accompanied Lucia in her mad scene like a shadow. Compliments are also in order for the harpist, and the fervent chorus.