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The spirit is willing, but the tenors are weak

The Vancouver Opera at Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver, on Saturday

Like an old, still serviceable limousine, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor gets its true distinction from the passengers it carries. The opera may be dated, but it is, first and foremost, a roomy vehicle for beautiful voices. If it delivers fine singing, we don't ask for polished chrome and reupholstered seats.

In fact, Vancouver Opera's production of Lucia pulled up in a fair amount of visual splendour. Robert O'Hearn's sets, borrowed from Florida Grand Opera, comprised the usual dour castles, staircases and Gothic windows, but were more evocative than most, and, graced with beautiful lighting by Vancouver's Alan Brodie, they conveyed an air of luxurious good taste. Costumes, too, courtesy of Utah Opera, kept the eye busy, even if the initial chorus of guardsmen in tartan and feathered tam-o'-shanter finery conjured a millinery convention.

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Our passengers, though, were a mixed assembly. Economical in frame and gesture, baritone Zheng Zhou captured the self-contained viciousness of Lucia's brother Enrico in a precise but well-lubricated baritone of insinuating power. And, as the well-intentioned cleric Raimondo, bass Gary Relyea was benevolent and believable.

As Lucia, the American lyric soprano Elizabeth Futral was solid and sensual. There was little that was girlish or fragile to Futral's heroine, mind you, nor did she seem a likely candidate for madness, for her soprano has such a full, weighty physicality we mistrust its capacity for coloratura. Indeed, it is a little too rich to ever truly take flight, and Futral's mad scene was cautiously paced, without the exuberant irrationality that gives this music its sting. On the other hand Futral was superb in her duet with Zheng, reacting in slow, stunned and heated lyricism to the counterfeited evidence of her lover's infidelity.

But where this Lucia fell short was in its tenors, and because there are three of them, it hurt. Marcel van Neer, as Normanno, was forced to squeeze his voice out over an overloud orchestra like a tube of toothpaste; Kurt Lehmann's Arturo, Lucia's luckless bridegroom, sounded about a fifth above his comfort range and wasn't helped by being dressed like Tiny Tim; while John Fowler's Edgardo could not convince us -- with his valiant but strained and eventually pained tenor -- that he was worthy of our heroine's love.

Fowler makes a hearty sound, but he aims his pitches low and uses his consonants to bully them up to pitch, creating a lot of extra effort for himself that ultimately exacts its due: He sounded tired indeed by the end of the opera, lending rather more verisimilitude than usual to the final scene, as he continues to sing with a mortal wound.

Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth Theatre is not an overfriendly acoustic. We lost voices as they moved backstage; more seriously, the orchestra was too bright, and too brash, in the winds, and often more present than the vocalists. Steven White accommodated his singers with stolid tempos and a straight beat. Pamela Berlin's direction had the usual amount of histrionic posturing -- heartbreak in opera, it seems, doth make cripples of its victims -- but was otherwise brisk and uncomplicated.

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