Natalie Dessay and company in Lucia di Lammermoor 
(©  Ken Howard)
Natalie Dessay and company in Lucia di Lammermoor
(© Ken Howard)
In discussing Mary Zimmerman's new production of Lucia di Lammermoor, this year's opener for the Metropolitan Opera, lyric soprano Natalie Dessay told Opera News that "music is not the last goal; it's a way to achieve the goal, which is theater." Without question, this point is driven home even more concretely in Dessay's memorably pellucid performance of the title role, in which she lives up to her carefully honed reputation for delivering the emotive goods in the Maria Callas tradition she reveres. And not surprisingly, considering her French origin and diminutive size, her Lucia is also in the raw-nerve tradition of non-opera chanteuse Edith Piaf.

The acid test in Gaetano Donizetti's 1835 adaptation (with librettist Savadore Cammarano) of Sir Walter Scott's Bride of Lammermoor is, of course, the third-act mad scene. In a blood-stained wedding gown and rending a veil, Dessay is a wraith tossed by cruel winds. She probably spends more time prostrate than most of her predecessors and at one startling moment rolls stuntwoman-like down the bottom treads of an elongated staircase that set designer Daniel Ostling has made a towering feature. Yet throughout "Spargi d'amaro," Dessay -- who's obviously recovered from vocal problems dogging her a few years back -- masterfully controls her never-extremely-large voice. Throwing in a hair-raising scream along the way, she plays on vocal fragility as a metaphor for psychological imbalance.

Although the audience may be waiting for that bravura third-act display as the opus's main attraction, Dessay doesn't mark time until she reaches the money notes. As she sees it, Lucia is not an entirely healthy mental specimen from the moment she arrives in the first act to expound in "Regnava nel silenzio" about her love for the gallant Edgardo (Marcello Giordani), the man whom her cash-poor brother Lord Enrico Ashton (Mariusz Kwiecien) doesn't want near her. From the get-go, Dessay makes certain to indicate signs of incipient madness.

Dessay is theatrical, all right, and Zimmerman -- who's moved Scott's time-frame from the early 18th Century to the mid 19th-century -- and her team have supplied additional theatrics. In creating his set, Ostling appears to have been thinking about what might have happened had Edward Gorey closely studied German romanticists; while costumer Mara Blumenfeld works a brown, gray, and silver palette to eye-popping effect. An opening tableau of the Scottish countryside in muted greens, browns, and purples is another eye-popper. Zimmerman wows eyes again when a silvery ghost haunts the woodland as Lucia presages her own murdering fate via the early aria about a murdered bride.

Furthermore, the anticipated second-act sextet occurs in a drawing-room with furniture covered by ghostly sheets eventually removed for some upscale dazzle. During Donizetti's intricate counterpoints, she has the principals and wedding guests gather for a group photograph. The business might annoy purists but others will deem it an inspiration.

Still, her theatrical notions aren't all-pervasive. There's only so much to be done with sizable choruses that have to render group-think observations or with extended duets, such as the first-act Lucia-Edgardo declaration of love in which, according to conventions, sentiments are repeated verbatim. She's also working with singers who don't share Dessay's acting-first approach, but hew closer to gestures favored by the sing-with-the-occasional-bent-arm school.

Nonetheless, a complimentary theory of sheer-music theatricality emerges in this Lucia. It's conducted for the first time in his career by James Levine with a lilting grandeur that never misses the drama of the piece but avoids heaving melodrama. There's majesty in the orchestra's playing, particularly in Deborah Hoffman's melting harp solo.

And though when Giordani's Edgardo arrives, it looks as if someone put too much starch in his billowing blouse, his tenor is laced with feeling. During the final suicide scene, Giordani flatted on a last aria note but had it seem as if emotion made him do it. Mariusz Kwiecien is an Enrico of beetle-browed intensity, and Met newcomer Stephen Costello's tender delivery turns Lucia's unwelcome suitor, Arturo, into a fellow more puzzled than pushy.