Who knew the sound of insanity could be so beautiful?
We had the opportunity to sit in on a rehearsal of Los Angeles Opera’s production of Gaetano Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," which opens Saturday.
The afternoon was the very first time cast or crew would be rehearsing with the rare, treasured instrument -- the glass harmonica -- that Donizetti intended for his tragic opera of love and madness. French musician Thomas Bloch had arrived from Paris only the night before, with the glass harmonica in tow.
The scene being rehearsed was the climax of the Italian opera, in which the fragile, young Lucia -- played by Russian coloratura soprano Albina Shagimuratova -- goes crazy after being forced by her family to break ties with her lover and marry another man. Because of the range of sounds it makes, from hollow and deep to eerie and shrill, the glass harmonica was key to Donizetti's vision for the scene; in the 1700s, the instrument was even reputed to invoke insanity among listeners. Today the instrument is rarely used in contemporary opera -- once or twice a year, worldwide.
In a quiet rehearsal room, music director James Conlon gathered about half a dozen people around a grand piano. Bloch took a seat at what looked like an antique pedal sewing machine with gold-rimmed glass discs rotating on its spindle. Shagimuratova sat on a rickety folding chair, her legs crossed and hands clasped on her knee, lady-like. Conlon stood before them, straightening his papers and softly clearing his throat.
The anticipation was palpable.
Finally, Bloch dipped his fingertips into a bowl of chalky water and gently massaged the spinning glass rings, which echoed throughout the room. Shagimuratova lets out a haunting, otherworldly cry, her voice rising and falling with the music. The sound was, without question, crazy-beautiful.
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