Music that matters: ‘South Pacific’ and ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’
By Jim Lowe
Opera North, like many of this country’s regional opera companies, is mixing great American musical theater and traditional opera. And the company is producing musical theater that matters — beyond entertainment.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” opening Saturday, was well ahead of its time, challenging racism in 1949.
“Rather than reacting to what was happening around them, like musicals like ‘Hair’ did, in some ways you could argue that they were propelling the dialogue,” said Gabriel Barre, the production’s stage director, adding, “It’s sad that these issues are still around.”
Opera North is taking Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” opening Aug. 6, out of ancient Scotland and to the end of the American Civil War to illustrate the complex but universal issues that lead to Lucia’s death.
“Does Lucia have a right to be in love when her whole family’s survival is at stake?” asks Elena Araoz, the production’s stage director. “It’s a life-or-death kind of play.”
Opera North is presenting “South Pacific” in repertory with “Lucia di Lammermoor” Saturday through Aug. 16, both fully staged with full orchestra, at the Lebanon (N.H.) Opera House. “Lucia” will be sung in the original Italian with English supertitles. Opera North’s Young Company is presenting Mark Adamo’s “Little Women,” with matinees Wednesday and Aug. 11.
“Lucia di Lammermoor,” Gaetano Donizetti’s 1835 bel canto masterpiece loosely based on a Sir Walter Scott novel, tells of a young woman torn between love and her family’s needs. To survive, politically as well as physically, her brother Lord Enrico Ashton promises her hand to Lord Arturo Bucklaw. But Lucia is in love with Sir Edgardo di Ravenswood, her brother’s enemy.
“The music is very exciting,” Araoz said. “I’m also very riveted by its lead character. I don’t see her just as this fragile woman. I think there is a lot of strength to her. She’s pulled by the many men in her life and is constantly forced to support them. She has to navigate that.”
But Araoz doesn’t feel that the brother Enrico is acting merely for his own convenience.
“Enrico’s position requires that he think about survival — not just the survival of him and his sister but of his whole clan, his whole family,” Araoz said. “So what he’s doing to Lucia, forcing her almost violently, is not out of hate for her but is out of a need for not only their survival but for their children’s survival.
“As patriarch of the family, Enrico has every right to do that in this time period. And so I see in what is often seen as a simple formulaic plot, a real struggle for survival for every character.”
Araoz has moved the action to Richmond, Va., right after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
“It’s an exact parallel,” she said. “Enrico we’ve made a wealthy slave owner. He would have been put on trial and could be put to death. These young women were being married off to re-establish their family name and to combine resources with other families who lost everything at the end of the war.”
Lucia will be portrayed by soprano Angela Mortellaro, who sang the role with the Dayton (Ohio) Opera and has performed with the Sarasota Opera, Caramoor Opera, Chautauqua Opera, Orlando Opera and Operafestival di Roma. Anthony Barrese, who conducted the opera last season in Sarasota, Fla., will conduct.
“I am very interested in the inner struggle,” Araoz said. “If those struggles and conflict aren’t there in the forefront of the production, then we start to see things like two-dimensional characters — the two-dimensional ingénue, the love interest and the mean brother — and there’s so much more to the opera than that.”
Barre looks to project the same depth and dimension in “South Pacific.”
“It’s in many ways ahead of its time, both in terms of musical theater as well as what it was trying to say,” he said.
The musical, based on James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Tales of the South Pacific,” opened on Broadway in 1949, winning 10 Tony Awards and running for 1,925 performances. In 1958, it was made into a feature film, the highest-grossing movie based on a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical before “The Sound of Music.”
Set during World War II, the plot centers on an American nurse who falls in love with an expatriate French plantation owner but struggles to accept his mixed-race children. Another romance between an American lieutenant and a Tonkinese girl explores his fears of the social consequences should he marry her.
“It was dealing with race in a way that certainly few musicals cared about doing or had the guts to do,” Barre said.
This came at a time when composer Richard Rodgers and writer-lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II were enjoying the great success of “Oklahoma!” (1943) and “Carousel” (1945).
“They were warned early along that there could be a lot of resistance from middle and southern America against putting themes of race and prejudice on the stage — especially in a musical, which largely to that point had been seen as escapist and pure entertainment,” Barre said.
“Working on the show has made me admire it even more how they stuck to their guns and wrote a piece about a really sensitive time in our nation’s history far before the civil rights movement,” Barre said. “It was ahead of its time.”
This production will be supported by a full orchestra conducted by Louis Burkot, Opera North’s artistic director, and will employ area microphones for the first time in the company’s history.
“They are there simply to enhance the natural voice and mainly to pick up any dialogue under which any music is playing — and that happens a lot,” Barre said. “But, for all intents and purposes, it’s a completely acoustic experience for the audience.”
But the performers won’t have trouble being heard without amplification. Veteran opera singers will be joined by singers from the Young Company in the cast.
“The music sounds absolutely stunning, and the voices are just beautiful,” Barre said.
Opera North presents:
— “South Pacific,” $32-$88, fully staged with orchestra; 7:30 p.m. Aug. 3, 9, 15 and 17 and 2 p.m. Aug. 8.
— “Lucia di Lammermoor,” $32-$88, fully staged with orchestra, sung in Italian with English supertitles; 7:30 p.m. Aug. 6, 10, 14 and 16.
— “Little Women,” $25, $5 for children; 2 p.m. Aug. 7 and 11.
Performances are at the Lebanon Opera House, 15 N. Park St. in Lebanon, N.H. For tickets, call 603-448-0400 or go online to www.lebanonoperahouse.org. For information, go to operanorth.org.