Rachele Gilmore Raises the Bar for Opera in Knoxville With a Superb Performance in Lucia di Lammermoor

It has been said that the role of Lucia in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor is a rite of passage for coloratura sopranos on the way up. Without doubt, the first-ever performance of the role by a soprano can be a telling indicator of whether she has those extraordinary qualities that define a great Lucia—the ability to thrill an audience with a unique vocal prowess and the ability to paint a dramatic portrayal with both subtlety and boldness. Rachele Gilmore, in Knoxville Opera's production of Lucia di Lammermoor last weekend, did just that—she thrilled a cheering, applauding audience in what was the most solidly accomplished KOC production in recent history.

Gilmore has what sopranos dream of: clear-as-a-bell, seemingly effortless high notes, and vocal flexibility with power throughout her range. Her size and voice seemed perfect for her fragile and haunted Lucia—a girl who has fallen in love with Edgardo, Master of Ravenswood, the sworn enemy of her Scottish family, the Ashtons, but who is forced to marry a wealthy man in order to rescue them from ruin.

Lucia's fragile psyche was evident in her first-scene aria, "Regnava nel silenzio"—while waiting for Edgardo's arrival, she tells her companion of seeing the specter of a murdered girl rise from a fountain. (And, in a wonderful staging concept, an eerie specter does in fact reach out to Lucia throughout, a symbol of her fate.) Yet Lucia is certain that their love will triumph over all in "Quando, repito in estasi," in which the character of the flute, harp, and Gilmore's articulation define the precarious dramatic divide opening before her.

In the famous "Mad Scene" in the third act, Lucia appears to the wedding guests with bloody gown and dagger, having stabbed to death the man she was forced to marry to insure her brother's financial survival. Now having lost her true love, and the last vestiges of her sanity, Gilmore's Lucia was the image of tragedy, alternating between a pale, dying flower and a menacing fiend. As the tension built and the impact of the tragedy upon the wedding guests edged higher, Gilmore's vocal madness rippled like waves in a bloody pool. And, those infamous high notes cut through it all like the bloody dagger in her hand.

Lucia's lover Edgardo was played by Dinyar Vania, a vigorous, darkly handsome tenor with a voice to match. (That face and voice should be familiar to Knoxville operagoers for his appearances in KOC's Rigoletto, La Boheme, and Madama Butterfly.) Vania's Edgardo was a strong, passionate, hot-blooded lover, his voice displaying both a brilliant edge and a rich lusciousness. In Lucia and Edgardo's Act I duet, "Ah! Verrano a te sull'aure," their voices blended beautifully.

Baritone Nelson Martinez, who sang the role of Rigoletto last season for KOC, returned as Lucia's desperately coercive brother, Enrico Ashton. Martinez's voice, rich and incredibly powerful—combined with his ample stature—was the perfect counterpoint to Lucia's reluctant submission.

Knoxville bass Andrew Wentzel brought his great voice and a charismatic characterization to the role of Raimondo Bidebent, the Ashton family chaplain and tutor. As if he possessed dramatic glue, the wedding scenes seemed to coalesce around him as he provided both story exposition and moral asides. The remainder of the superb cast was tenor Stefan Michael Barner as Normanno, Enrico's henchman; Corinne Stevens as Alisa, Lucia's companion; and Harry House as Arturo, Lucia's ill-fated husband.

It goes without saying that regional opera is a study in compromises. KOC general director Brian Salesky and stage director Carroll Freeman have had to make some judicious choices, constrained by budget and technical limitations. Several scenes not absolutely essential to the resolution of the plot were cut, as was non-aria music in other scenes. A somewhat reduced orchestration was employed that could have left the instrumental force sounding a little thin. Thankfully, Salesky and the players of the Knoxville Symphony were all excellent pit veterans and beautifully compensated for their increased exposure. Rented sets are the norm for regional opera; Freeman's staging used this deliciously dark and gloomy (but otherwise undramatic) Scottish castle-themed wing-and-drop set to its best possible effect.

In the end, though, this was Rachele Gilmore's evening—her first Lucia, but obviously not her last, given the tumultuous ovations she received here. Such a performance success has a bittersweet element, though. She and KOC have now set our bar of expectations for the future impossibly high.