This was the big night. Peter Gelb opened his second season at the Metropolitan Opera on Monday with a new, presumably daring production of that hum-along hit, Lucia di Lammermoor. But the play wasn’t necessarily the thing.

The impresario extraordinaire literally spread a red carpet across the Lincoln Center plaza. Paparazzi greeted the beautiful people. The top ticket cost $5,000 with a fancy dinner thrown in. The insiders tended to favour jewels, trains and tuxes, though one could spot a sports jacket here and a T-shirt there. The show was beamed to the masses on screens out front and in distant Times Square. Never mind that the alfresco conditions proved more flattering to sight than to sound.

Under the circumstances, it would be gratifying to report an aesthetic as well as a public-relations triumph. Gelb didn’t quite bring that off. He assembled a stellar cast, and the conductor was none less than James Levine, who had led nearly 2,500 performances with the company but never Lucia. The situation turned a bit murky with the engagement of the director, Mary Zimmerman. Another refugee from the so-called legitimate theatre, she remains something of a stranger in this operatic paradise.

Best known for her staging of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, she came up with a series of handsome, essentially conventional, semi-stylised images. Abetted by her designer Daniel Ostling, she also raised a few questions. Why was the action moved from the 17th century to the not-so-gay ’90s? Why did the lovers have to clamber up and down a hill like mellifluous mountain-goats (the poor diva actually came tumbling down at one scary point)? Why was the supposedly dilapidated Wolfcrag tower turned into a cosy parlour?

Sometimes the director seemed to distrust both score and libretto. During her entrance aria Lucia had to compete with the balletic ghost of a murdered relative. At the end of the opera, the ethereal maiden returned to comfort the dying hero. Why? During the mad scene, a physician arrived to give the heroine an injection. It calmed neither her nerves nor ours. When Edgardo burst in to interrupt the wedding, Zimmerman brought on a fussy photographer who arranged the group in formal poses for the family album. The sextet had to be ignored. Fatal jealousy had to be forgotten, desperate rage postponed.

Luckily, there were musical compensations. Levine, who opened most of the time-dishonoured cuts, made a persuasive case for stressing romantic fire over bel canto grace. Marcello Giordani brought such warmth and ardour to Edgardo’s plaints that one overlooked his disinclination to sing softly. Mariusz Kwiecien introduced an uncommonly incisive Enrico. John Relyea rolled out basso gravitas as Raimondo. Stephen Costello was sufficiently imposing in the minor duties of Arturo to justify his imminent promotion to Edgardo.

Still, when all was sung and done, the saving grace had to be Natalie Dessay. Unlike some illustrious predecessors, the French soprano made the heroine seem prone to lunacy from the start. Fragile and febrile, nervous yet passionate, she resisted both melodrama and cliché. She inflected the text with subtle nuances, floated exquisite pianissimo phrases in moments of introspection and made the tiniest embellishment seem organic (ah, those trills!). She did encounter some problems at top range, avoiding the traditional climax in the first half of the mad scene and flatting the E-flat at the end. In context it hardly mattered. She broke hearts. ★★★★☆
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