DONIZETTI Lucia di Lammermoor
We still await a stunning all-round version of this seminal drama on disc. To encompass fully a heroine already at her first appearance talking distractedly about a ghost murder at a fountain you either have to be a brilliant vocal actress or a young-sounding, risk-taking flexible soprano. In the former case Maria Callas (traceable now on at least eight recordings) may not sound youthful but she’s certainly not of this world. With Callas every scene – even the dialogues with her brother and Raimondo – is like a what-will-she-do-next thriller. In the latter case Andrea Rost with Mackerras and a ‘period’ orchestra (the only one to date but important) on Sony, or Natalie Dessay, guesting with Gergiev’s Mariinsky company, are young-sounding and sympathy-evoking as well as finding their way excitingly round the notes and embellishments. And, perhaps, Anna Netrebko (DG) in a more interesting context than the filmed Met production.
Such excitements are only intermittently available in this new set based on Munich concerts and led by German star Diana Damrau. It would be mealy-mouthed to deny the soprano’s cool, unflinching note-for-note accuracy. In the Mad scene every high note and every strand of coloratura written or implied by the composer has been faultlessly planned and rehearsed and is executed likewise; the orchestra has been told where and when to speed up or slow down within a milliquaver. But our temperatures rarely rise or our pulses beat faster.
Of course, many will find just the high standard of the execution of the music in itself fulfilling listening. This ‘problem’ of excitement level is not unique to this recording: it has dogged rivals from Joan Sutherland’s onwards. Because, by significantly upping the sex and violence of their source (Walter Scott’s novel), composer and librettist Salvadore Cammarano not only were creating a matrix for tragic 19th-century melodrama but wanting more than just a virtuoso singing recital.
Damrau’s colleagues are reliable if not special. The lower men contribute intelligently – Tézier’s Enrico unyielding to his sister but evidently hurt by his dynastic misfortunes and Testé a weak man trying hard in an awkward place. Calleja’s beautiful instrument deploys a colour and style from the other end of the century. His presumably intentional restraint – like the orchestra’s under López-Cobos – contributes to a sound picture of Donizetti as an early Verdi with the brakes on. But from the pit this score needs the vim of Weber’s Freischütz. Few conductors outside Mackerras, whatever their repertoire experience, have achieved any kind of relevant Donizetti sound on record. The recording quality is perfectly fine.