The soprano Natalie Dessay must thrive under pressure. Singing the touchstone title role of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" in a new production to open the Metropolitan Opera's season on Monday night would have been enough to contend with. But Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager, believes in presenting opera as a total theatrical package, which includes, when he has the right star in the right show, a promotional campaign that a Broadway mogul like Rocco Landesman would envy. For weeks Ms. Dessay's picture has been posted, it has seemed, on half the subway stops and buses in New York.
But if the high expectations rattled this petite and charismatic French soprano, it didn't show on Monday. A terrific cast was onstage to engage her in Mary Zimmerman's production of "Lucia," and James Levine conducted his first performance of this staple, hard as that is to believe. That the show was simulcast to thousands more on screens in Lincoln Center Plaza and in Times Square just enhanced the sense of event, not to mention the pressure on the performers.
You never know what to expect from Ms. Dessay, one of the most intuitive and risk-taking singers before the public. A few years back she had a dismaying bout of vocal ailments. At the recent tribute to Beverly Sills, she sang an expressive yet vocally wan performance of a Strauss song.
But she sounded glorious on Monday. Her voice has an intriguing mix of qualities. She is essentially a light, lyric soprano with agile coloratura technique. Yet she supports her voice so solidly that her sound shimmers throughout the Met's vast auditorium. There is that classic French, slightly cool color to her voice, though she brings her own kind of richness to the Italian repertory.
Ms. Dessay started her career as an actress and still thinks of herself as an actress who sings, something that came through in her riveting portrayal. Ms. Zimmerman's production shifts the Scottish setting of the opera from the time of William and Mary to the 19th century, roughly the period in which Sir Walter Scott wrote the novel on which the opera is based.
"Lucia di Lammermoor" is a tale of rival families, and poor Lucia is caught in the middle. Her brother, Lord Enrico Ashton, panicked that he has squandered the family holdings through his obsessive battling with the hated Ravenswood clan, wants Lucia to marry the wealthy Lord Arturo. But she has fallen for the Ravenswood heir, Edgardo, whose passion is in some ways as oppressive as her brother's bullying. Lucia has become a fragile thing who keeps seeing a ghost of an ancestor who was killed by a jealous Ravenswood lover.
Ms. Zimmerman has done some miraculous work in the theater, including her adaptation of Ovid's "Metamorphoses." She is newer to opera, and her work here, though compelling, seems less confident. As she has said in recent interviews, "Lucia" is sometimes milked for psychological subtexts, sometimes treated as historical melodrama. A director could present Lucia's ghostly visions as evidence of her shaky mental state or as a real part of the world Scott depicts.
Ms. Zimmerman opts to do a little of both these approaches, which could have been a recipe for disaster. Not here, for the most part. The sets deftly mix abstract and storybook imagery: in the first scene, for example, where a mossy mound of grass and brush sits atop shiny geometrical floorboards, with a background of leafless trees.
In trying to make the phantoms of the opera real, Ms. Zimmerman sometimes goes too far, as in Lucia's first scene, when she appears at the fountain where she has met Edgardo and encountered the ghost. Ms. Dessay looked both striking and pitiable in her sensible walking dress, complete with hat and boots. But as Lucia tells her companion, Alisa, of the ghost she has seen, singing the alluring aria "Regnava nel silenzio," we see the ghost, a haunted, pasty-faced young woman, who beckons Lucia.
Though a powerful image, it proved a distraction to Ms. Dessay's lustrous singing. Sometimes in opera the music alone is the drama, especially when performed as vibrantly as it was here.
Ms. Zimmerman also seems to have been impatient with the dramatically static sextet in Act II, when the distraught Lucia, duped into thinking Edgardo unfaithful, marries Lord Arturo. Edgardo comes bursting into the wedding party, and everything stops as the justly famous sextet begins. Donizetti meant for the main characters to be frozen in place as they mull over their own thoughts. Nothing happens. That's the point. The tension is internalized in the soaring and elegant music.
Instead Ms. Zimmerman invents an action: the wedding participants and guests are assembled by a photographer for a formal photo. Though the moment is beautifully directed, this staging device, again, overwhelmed the stirring performance.