Bats in the bel canto

Opera often inhabits a deliciously deranged world. There are few more dramatically urgent and musically elevating scenes than when the heroine loses her marbles -- usually to the tune of flowery musical passage work. Celebrated mad scenes can be found in Il Pirata, I Puritani, Hamlet and a host of other operas, but none is more famous than Lucia di Lammermoor, Michigan Opera Theatre's latest production at the Detroit Opera House.

Enamored of the family rival but forced to marry someone she doesn't love, Lucia flips out, carves up hubby with a dagger, then envisions she's in heaven with her true beloved. Some sopranos focus more on singing Donizetti's cruelly difficult musical demands than on etching out a convincing portrayal of madness. But not Sumi Jo, who from the very outset reveals a fragile, vulnerable character, ready to unravel at the slightest provocation. By the time she reaches the mad scene, her white gown spattered with blood, she seems to exist on a plane of reality that's somewhere between Jupiter and Uranus.

A good Lucia must not only communicate that she's ripe for the loony bin, but also sing with high-wire agility, producing cascades of rapid runs, bird-like trills and high notes that seem to reach the stars. Jo's technique is so secure that her coloratura displays are not mere showboating, but a means to heighten the drama. Her pinpoint accuracy with the solo flute in the mad scene is exemplary, and her top E-flats are downright thrilling. The South Korean's voice may not be as big as other celebrated Lucias, such as Sutherland or Callas, but it's so well placed that it carries to every corner of the theater.

Every production of Lucia is clearly the soprano's show, but Jo is capably assisted for the most part by her colleagues. As Lucia's bossy brother Enrico, Russian baritone Evgenij Dmitriev turns in a solid performance. One wishes his voice were a bit more robust, but Dmitriev, who is making his U.S. debut, is a strong presence, even if he overplays his anger a tad. We'll hear more from him in the title role of Eugene Onegin this spring at MOT.

As Raimondo, Brian Matthews has a rich, earthy lower voice, but his upper register has a closed, veiled quality. Tenor Fernando de la Mora is inconsistent as Lucia's beloved, Edgardo. His voice has a nice lyric quality, but his forte notes sound as though they're shouted instead of sung. A few intonation miscalculations also marred his performance.

Director Mario Corradi stages the production skillfully and conductor Donato Renzetti encourages the orchestra to play cohesively and buoyantly. Robert O'Hearn's sets effectively evoke the mysterious moors and brooding castles of 16th-century Scotland. In the end, though, this is Sumi Jo's vehicle, and it travels like a rocket.

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