Argentine duo really make the opera sing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An article in Sunday's Arts and Entertainment section about the Baltimore Opera Company production of "Lucia di Lammermoor" misstated one of the production's curtain times. On Oct. 20, "Lucia" will begin at 7:30 p.m.

+ The Sun regrets the errors.

They're the Smith & Wesson of the operatic world. And any production by the Argentine team of Roberto Oswald and Anibal Lapiz usually hits the bull's-eye.

The two most memorable productions of the Baltimore Opera Company in the four years since general director Michael Harrison took over the company have been the work of Oswald, who directs the action, designs the sets and does the lighting, and Lapiz, who designs the costumes and collaborates in the direction. Long after one has forgotten who sang the title roles in their "Salome" (1989) or "Don Carlos" (1991), one will remember the way they looked -- the shimmering desert heat of "Salome," with its sickly decadent beauty, and the plush coloring and lighting of the "Don Carlos," which suggested human beings stretched on a rack between heaven and earth.

And the sketches for Oswald and Lapiz's staging of "Lucia di Lammermoor," which opens Saturday at the Lyric Opera House, suggest that the pairwill be equally successful at evoking the hallucinatory mists and the Gothic ruins that surround the doomed lovers in Donizetti's operatic rendering of Sir Walter Scott's romantic novel about feuding noble families in 17th-century Scotland.

With the very occasional exception of a star singer such as James Morris, Oswald and Lapiz may be the most internationally important figures who regularly visit the Baltimore Opera. Oswald is director of productions at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, one of the world's great opera houses, and his productions with Lapiz -- whether in Europe, North America or South America -- have often been as warmly received as they have been in Baltimore.

"Everyone is usually very happy with the work they do," says Martin Feinstein, executive director of the Washington Opera and a man who does not ladle out undeserved praise. "Their 'Flying Dutchman' for us several years ago was first class, and their 'Pearl Fishers' last season was even better. I know Dallas was thrilled with their 'Ring.' "

What makes Oswald and Lapiz stand out is that their work is genuinely beautiful in an old-fashioned sense without ever becoming bland, and thought-provoking without doing violence to the intentions of the composer and his librettists.

"They're real magic makers," says the BOC's Harrison, who first worked with Oswald and Lapiz at Opera Columbus. "And they know the music -- they know every note of every piece in the repertory. The production they have designed for 'Lucia' cost only $58,000, but it is so beautiful that I expect that we will make that money back -- and a good bit more -- from rentals [to other companies] within five years."

"It's like something by the Bronte sisters -- 'Jane Eyre' or 'Wuthering Heights,' " says Oswald of his conception of "Lucia." "I have the feeling that this opera must be dominated by foggy and windy places."

"Even the costumes must be heavy," adds Lapiz. "I want to show that the characters are carrying their destinies."

These two -- who have worked together for 22 years, who sometimes speak sentences that begin with each other's periods, and who obviously enjoy each other's company -- could not appear to be more different. Oswald, who is 60 and single, is an attractive, rumpled walrus of a man who is sometimes given to thinking out loud in his fluent, but still heavily Spanish-accented English. The trimly handsome, elegantly haber--ered Lapiz, who is 46, married and has a family, is quieter and chooses words in almost flawless English as carefully as he would select a color for a costume. And they didn't like each other -- or at least Lapiz didn't like Oswald -- at the beginning.

"I was a student at the [school attached to the] Teatro Colan, where he was one of my teachers," says Lapiz with a smile. "We all thought he was a terrible man, and each of us hated him without knowing why."

After graduation, Lapiz spent two years in London as a clothing designer and returned to Buenos Aires in 1968. In 1969, Lapiz, who had become one of his country's most successful young designers, was invited to contribute a show to the city's international exposition.

"I was doing an exhibition about the Teatro Colon, with sets, costumes -- everything," says Oswald.

"My brother-in-law, an architect, kept telling me, 'You must see this man's work -- it's remarkable,' " says Lapiz.

"He was impressed by my designs, and I was impressed by him as a designer," says Oswald.

"I'm a great believer in destiny," Lapiz says of their partnership. "I think that it was fated that we meet again."

Oswald, who had always costumed his own productions, was about to begin work on a new staging of Prokofiev's expressionistic "The Fiery Angel," in which he had conceived of lighting effects so complex -- with mirrors and sculptures that had to be lighted from within -- that he knew he had to leave the costume design to someone else. He invited Lapiz to collaborate with him; they've worked together ever since.

"They work from a single concept of the whole," says Harrison. "Every part of every production is permeated by a vision."

"There is no other way," says Oswald.

In their opulent production of Strauss' "Salome," for example, the generating idea came from the fin de siecle paintings of Salome by Gustav Klimt, whose work in Vienna was contemporaneous with that of the composer.

"We visualized that the mosaic on the stage floor should continue from the costumes," Oswald continues. "[The characters] cannot escape from the earth any more than they can escape from their destiny."

"The only exception was Jochanaan [John the Baptist]," says Lapiz. "He actually rises from beneath the stage and he is not costumed like the others -- not like a figure in a Klimt work. He literally belongs to another world."

For their staging of Verdi's "Don Carlos," in which the singers seemed distorted like the figures in the Mannerist art of the late 16th century and lighted from within like the figures in the Baroque art of the 17th century, "I thought about the paintings of El Greco and Velasquez," says Lapiz.

"We visited the Escurial in Madrid -- the palace where Phillip II [the lead baritone role in the opera] had lived," says Oswald. "I said to Anibal, 'In this cold place between these glorious walls, I have no doubt why Elisabeth of Valois [the opera's soprano lead] died so young."

The black and white patterns on the stage of that production made the characters resemble chess pieces, and that was intentional.

"The political tensions between Spain and Flanders, the problems between the kingdom and the church -- all these things are forces that manipulate the characters," Oswald says. "The [distortions and elongations in] El Greco figured in the conclusion [in which Don Carlos is rescued from the Grand Inquisitor by the ghost of his grandfather, Charles V], which is more a transfiguration than a death."

pTC If Oswald and Lapiz have a favorite composer it is probably either Verdi -- their productions have won several prizes from the Verdi Society -- or Wagner, of whose "Ring" cycle they are about to stage strikingly different productions (their fourth and fifth) for Buenos Aires and Santiago, Chile.

"But you're always in love with the last opera you do," Lapiz says. "Right now we're crazy about the 'Turandot' we just did in Buenos Aires."

"The whole city was talking about it," says Oswald.

Just the way -- if what's past is prologue -- this city's opera lovers may be talking next week about "Lucia."

'LUCIA'

What: Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor"

Where: Lyric Opera House, 1404 Maryland Ave.

When: Oct. 16, 20, 22 at 8:15 p.m. and Oct. 24 at 3 p.m.

Tickets: $18-$82

$ Call: (410) 727-6000

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