And yet, on opening night at West Bay Opera, we still sort of rooted for Lucia Ashton. Soprano Rochelle Bard sang her first scene so sweetly, with such hopeful eyes, that we thought maybe, just this once, true love could win out over Scottish clan warfare.
Well. It's nice to dream.
For the fourth time in its 58-year history, West Bay Opera is presenting Gaetano Donizetti's 19th-century tragedy "Lucia di Lammermoor" in all its sweetness, blood, feuds and tartans. Based on the novel "The Bride of Lammermoor" by Sir Walter Scott, the plot centers on young noblewoman Lucia, who has fallen for Edgardo of the rival Ravenswood clan while still grieving the loss of her parents. Lucia's brother, Enrico, is enraged at the furtive love affair. He forces Lucia to marry another man, Arturo, in hopes of forging a political bond with Arturo's family.
Right after the marriage contract is signed, Edgardo bursts in and discovers Lucia has wed another. Everyone is furious; everyone is upset; but there is a very nice sextet.
That night, in the unhappy nuptial chamber, Lucia stabs her groom to death with his own dagger. She then reappears on stage in the aforementioned bloody nightgown for a mad scene in which she hallucinates that she's marrying Edgardo instead, and then collapses and dies. Upon hearing the news, Edgardo stabs himself and dies, too.
So, here we are. It's not a cheerful opera, and it's an oddly slow one, considering all the bloodshed. But Bard carries West Bay's production beautifully. Hers is a voice of remarkable range and life, equally at home in the heights and in the loving low notes. On opening night, there was a lovely gentle quality to her sudden soft tones, just on the edge of breathiness but never losing precision.
Lucia's mad scene was difficult to look away from, as much as you might have wanted to. Bard pulled it off with conviction, auburn hair wild and reddened hands clutching sad, wilted flowers. It's no surprise that the members of the chorus backed away from her.
The opening-night performance began hesitantly, with the male chorus awfully timid for an avenging search party seeking a rival clansman. As Enrico, Krassen Karagiozov sang of his fury but seemed more sanguine. Then the rich voice of Isaiah Muzik-Ayala made a welcome entrance into the scene. Playing the chaplain Raimondo, the bass-baritone was authoritative in his interactions with the men and sympathetic to Lucia. His urgings to Lucia to follow her family duty and wed Arturo ("Your sacrifice will be inscribed in the heavens") might have made her go more willingly to the altar if she hadn't already been wearing another man's ring.
The bright-voiced Vincent Chambers was another standout as Edgardo: first loving, then outraged, then devastated. And all the principals were at their best in the energetic Act II sextet, "Chi mi frena in tal momento (Who restrains me in such a moment)."
The famous sextet — whose melody was used as a ringtone in the 2006 movie "The Departed" and whistled by a character in 1932's "Scarface" — drew cheers from the West Bay audience. Rage, betrayal and anguish were all on fine display as Edgardo discovered his Lucia had married another, Enrico was overcome with remorse for forcing his sister to marry, and Lucia simply grieved. The chorus, too, had a nice moment singing about Lucia, "Whoever is not moved for her has a tiger's heart in his breast."
Costume designer Claire Townsend was at her best in this scene, placing Bard in an elaborate gold off-the-shoulder wedding gown. And it must have been a treat to dress the men in this Scottish landscape. Never has the Lucie Stern Theatre been home to such an array of plaids, argyles and shoe bows.
What: Gaetano Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," presented by West Bay Opera
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Remaining performances are Saturday, Feb. 23, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 24, at 2 p.m.
Cost: Tickets are $40-$75.
Info: Go to wbopera.org or call 650-424-9999. West Bay Opera's next production, Verdi's "Otello," is scheduled to open May 24.