Stage director Tomer Zvulun aims to make Seattle Opera's "Lucia di Lammermoor" as real and human as possible, mad scene and all.

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“Our job is to make it real,” said Tomer Zvulun, and this was the consistent tone of his comments when I talked with the Israeli stage director and Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak about Seattle Opera’s upcoming production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

That may sound like a curious view. Dr. Johnson defined opera as “an exotic and irrational entertainment,” and the particular genre to which “Lucia” belongs — “bel canto” (literally, “beautiful singing”) — is often thought of as little more than a happy hunting ground for “canary fanciers,” as admirers of the soprano voice in its upper reaches are sometimes called.

Yet when a story gave him the opportunity, Gaetano Donizetti was passionately concerned about showing his public real people enmeshed in real, often tragic, situations. In “Lucia,” the central characters are star-crossed lovers driven to destruction by their feuding families (see synopsis, next page).

What interests Zvulun — a member of the Metropolitan Opera directing staff — is “what people do, and why they do it. When we watch what happens to the characters, we should be able to say to ourselves, ‘Yes, that’s something I’ve seen, that’s something I know.’ “

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As a result, he even feels the need to represent Enrico Ashton, who in this opera is the brother whose machinations result in Lucia’s madness and death, as more than merely a one-dimensional villain: “You have to understand that he’s pushed into this by his very real fear of imminent ruin, from which, in his mind, only Lucia’s marriage to his potential protector, Arturo, can save him.”

These, you will observe, are very Italian names for a story set in Scotland, originally during the reign of William and Mary at the end of the 17th century, but in this production shifted to the 1830s.

“The Victorian period,” Zvulun explains, “was, I think, a time when people led a very repressive existence, and so it fits with the pressures society exerted on the unfortunate Lucia.

And,” he adds, “there’s no Scottish local color in the work — no kilts, no jigs. It seems to me more like a Mediterranean tale in atmosphere.

“For that matter, it could happen here, and it could happen now. Don’t forget the Al Pacino and Talia Shire characters in ‘The Godfather’ — Michael Corleone warning his sister, Connie, against the man she loves. She disregards his warning, but it could easily have come out differently.

“What I felt we had to do was to establish from the start that Lucia is a real woman, or rather, perhaps, just a normal teenager, but one with a particularly vivid imagination. That imagination shows in her vision of the ghost of another wronged woman, and it also contributes to her collapse into madness when she’s pushed beyond endurance.”

The mad scene near the end is frequently regarded as the supreme test for any Lucia.

But Kurzak — tackling the role for the first time on opening night — finds it less taxing to sing and act than her first-act aria “Regnava nel silenzio,” which presents different and complex challenges.

In the mad scene, she says, “I have a wonderful sense of freedom, and this is something that comes particularly from working with Tomer.”

And lest you fear that anything after that electrifying 20 minutes of madness may be anticlimactic, the greatest single stroke of music-dramatic genius in the whole opera comes, to my mind, in the aria “Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali,” sung at the very end by her brokenhearted lover, Edgardo (Seattle favorite William Burden on opening night).

When he comes to repeat the phrase “o bell’alma inamorata” (“oh, beautiful, loving soul”), he is for a moment bereft of words, so the orchestra takes over for the first four heart-wrenching notes, then he completes the line with the shortened “oh, beautiful soul.”

Such is the kind of detail that animates this thrilling, profoundly moving and irresistibly tuneful opera. It will be fascinating to see how a committedly humanistic director like Zvulun realizes these riches.

Bernard Jacobson:

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