CHAUTAUQUA - An outstanding cast, high production values, and a nearly perfect orchestral accompaniment came together Saturday evening in the Chautauqua Amphitheater, to present a simply thrilling production of Gaetano Donizetti's masterpiece opera: ''Lucia di Lammermoor."
Aside from some of the most difficult and exciting music the composer ever offered, the opera provides a moral dilemma. The plot is based on Sir Walter Scott's dramatic "The Bride of Lammermoor." Lucy - now Lucia, in the Italian composer's version - is an innocent young girl who is overwhelmed by horrors beyond her wildest imagination.
Her mother has recently died. While visiting her mother's grave, she was attacked and nearly killed by a wild bull. Saved at the last possible moment by a hunter, she falls passionately in love with him, as only a girl in her early teens can do, only to find that he is the son of her family's greatest enemy.
Then her brother arrives to tell her that because of a change in the nation's politics, if she doesn't marry Arturo, a complete stranger, the brother and possibly the whole family will be executed. Hopefully you're getting the picture.
Soprano Rachelle Durkin put chills up and down everyone's spine as the fragile Lucia. Because the role demands a huge voice with spot perfect control, it has usually been performed by women who might have played fullback with the Steelers, in their spare time. Ms. Durkin is slender and graceful, and fits perfectly the emotions and actions of her character. In the very first scene, her voice was musically correct, but emotionally colorless, but she warmed quickly as her character's struggles accelerated, and by the raging mad scene of the final act, everything was perfect.
She was ably supported by Todd Thomas as her ruthlessly determined brother, by Gregory Carroll as her true love, and by Richard Bernstein as the family's chaplain, who tries valiantly to steer everyone between what's right and what saves lives and maintains sanity.
Director Jay Lesenger has created a dramatically exciting production as well as a musically exciting one. For example, in the first scene, Lucia tells her servant that there is a legend of an ancestor of her beloved, who was betrayed by his lover and murdered her. The director has put the ghosts of the long-dead lovers onto the stage, to dramatize how emotionally frail Lucia is, and how completely she is losing her grasp on reality.
The ghosts were nicely played by dancers from Chautauqua Region Youth Ballet: Molly Vine and Shawn Sprankle.
My one quibble was with the decision to set the action at the turn of the 20th century, which made for beautiful clothes and architecture in the set, but which set everything at one of the most stable periods of English and Scottish history, instead of in the midst of the Jacobite Uprisings, where the composer put it, when brother was turning against brother and kings and pretenders rose and fell like autumn leaves.
Conductor Joseph Colaneri led the Chautauqua Symphony sensitively to both the dramatic and musical structures of the opera. Except that the orchestra had tone quality problems at two critical places in the score, the accompaniment was very fine.
Ron Kadri's sets set the action very well, despite the challenges of the Amphitheater's irregularly shaped stage. B.G. FitzGerald's costumes were beautiful.
If Chautauqua is only going to show us two operas in a season, this one was a spectacular start. The final remaining production will be Puccini's ''Manon Lescaut,'' which will be performed in Norton Hall on July 27 and 30.