The sound of a woman descending into madness is rich and piercing — and oddly beautiful.
In a quiet rehearsal room at the Los Angeles Opera, music director James Conlon gathers about half a dozen people around a grand piano. Among them is Russian coloratura soprano Albina Shagimuratova and French musician Thomas Bloch, who's just arrived from Paris with a rare, treasured instrument, the glass harmonica.
Bloch takes a seat at what looks like an antique pedal sewing machine with gold-rimmed glass discs rotating on its spindle. Shagimuratova sits on a rickety folding chair, her legs crossed and hands clasped on her knee, lady-like; Conlon stands before them, straightening his papers and softly clearing his throat.
The glass harmonica's range of sounds — from hollow and deep to eerie and shrill — was key to Gaetano Donizetti's tragic Italian opera of love and madness, "Lucia di Lammermoor," which is being rehearsed on a recent afternoon. In this scene, the opera's climax, the fragile, young Lucia — played by Shagimuratova — goes crazy after being forced by her family to break ties with her lover and marry another man. The glass harmonica, reputed in the 1700s to invoke insanity among listeners, only appears once or twice a year in contemporary opera worldwide (early on, Donizetti switched it out for a flute), and no one has heard it played for this production. The anticipation is palpable.
Bloch dips his fingertips into a bowl of chalky water and gently massages the spinning pieces, which echo throughout the room. When Shagimuratova forms her mouth into a pouty O, flails her arms in the air and lets out a haunting, otherworldly cry, it is the sound of insanity.
"Amazing, right?" Conlon says after the scene wraps. "I never heard anything like it."
"Yeah, just — wow," Shagimuratova says.
The production, which premieres Saturday, is L.A. Opera's first staging of "Lucia di Lammermoor" in more than a decade. When it last played at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, it starred another Russian soprano, Anna Netrebko, and Marthe Keller directed with Julius Rudel conducting.
The new version, directed by San Francisco-based Elkhanah Pulitzer with Conlon conducting, is decidedly more modern. Donizetti wrote his tragedy in 1835, basing it on a Walter Scott story about a real-life Scottish murder in 1669. The time period has been updated to 1885, the costumes are simple and streamlined and light projections appear on the back wall of the stage, hinting at changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution.
"We wanted to bring this opera back into our repertoire, but we also knew that we didn't want to do it unless we could find the perfect Lucia," L.A. Opera General Director Plácido Domingo says. "Albina has a phenomenal vocal technique that reminds me of the golden age of bel canto. Her voice is placed high, bright and very agile, but it also has great size and presence."
Shagimuratova, 34, is something of a coup for L.A. Opera. The soprano shot into the international spotlight when she won Moscow's International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2007. By 2008 she had debuted in "The Magic Flute" at Austria's prestigious Salzburg Festival, playing the Queen of the Night, now considered her signature role — one played for her L.A. Opera debut in 2009.
This past February, when Shagimuratova starred in Mary Zimmerman's production of "Lucia" at La Scala in Milan, Italy, a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera of New York, she received a 20-minute standing ovation.
"I like to play strong women," Shagimuratova says, settling into a cushy armchair in her dressing room, her cherubic face still flushed from rehearsals. "Lucia is the most difficult, the most demanding, but also the most beautiful role in the bel canto repertoire. It fits my voice like a glove."
Growing up in a part of the former Soviet Union that is now the independent republic of Uzbekistan, Shagimuratova never considered opera as a career, though music was always central to her life. Her father played the bayan accordion, and as a toddler she sang Tatar folk songs with him at community concerts. Her parents, both attorneys, encouraged her to play piano from age 5, and in college she studied to become a choral conductor.
"I'd heard Maria Callas sing 'Violetta' when I was 12 and fell in love [with opera], such a beautiful art," she says. "But I never thought I had a voice — or that this would be my life."
But when she was in college, Shagimuratova's father requested a favor that would change the course of her life: He asked her to sing one of his compositions on the phone to a Russian opera star, Khaydar Begichev, to see if he would perform it.
"Afterwards, he said, 'Can you pass the phone to your father?' Then: 'She needs to go and learn opera, she has a great voice!'" Shagimuratova recalls. "This was 1997. A few months later, he died."
At 14, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Shagimuratova and her family fled their home in Tashkent with just three suitcases of belongings among them. They took a train northwest for five days to Kazan, Russia.
"It was a scary time, difficult, no money, empty refrigerator," she says. "But everything you go through in your personal life, you can bring to the stage, to the roles. That's what makes it interesting."
Growing up amid personal tragedy and political turmoil prepared Shagimuratova to play the strong female roles for which she's known, including Violetta in "La Traviata" at the Bolshoi in Moscow, among other places.
The death of Shagimuratova's younger sister in a car crash in 2004 only made her push harder. The sister, two years younger, had just switched from pursuing a career in law to singing opera. "Her death made me stronger," Shagimuratova says. "Now I'm living for us both."
The singer is married to an American journalist in Dallas, but given her travel schedule, she says, she sees him about once every two months. After "Lucia di Lammermoor" wraps in Los Angeles, Shagimuratova will travel to Seoul to sing Violetta in "La Traviata" with the Korea National Opera. Then she will perform the same role at the Bolshoi.
The personal sacrifices, physical demands and peripatetic lifestyle of an international opera career are their own form of insanity, Shagimuratova admits — but a "love and madness" that's as beautifully chaotic as the glass harmonica itself.
"It's exhausting, but so worth it," Shagimuratova says, falling back into her armchair. "It brings so much happiness and joy. You can bring to people what you think inside, your heart and soul. To have that connection — when there is that silence in the audience and the voice rings and you have their attention — it's just amazing."
'Lucia di Lammermoor'
What: L.A. Opera
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 2 p.m. March 23, 7:30 p.m. March 26 and 29, 2 p.m. April 6
Information: (213) 972-8001, http://www.laopera.org