By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Jan 30, 2001 at 12:40 AM

Paula Suozzi is directing the Skylight Opera's production of "Lucia di Lammermoor," opening Fri., Feb. 2, on the Cabot Stage of the Broadway Theatre Center, as part of the International Arts Festival: Celebrate Italian!.

When I spoke with Suozzi recently, she had about a week and a half to complete her work before the show opened. My first impression was one of awe; there was no hint of anything that might be distracting her. Not even the fact that she'd been sanding floors in her new house into which she will move the day before Lucia opens. She was relaxed, charming, gracious and apparently totally in control of her life and the opera.

The Skylight presents its operas in English so I will refer to the work in question as Lucy of Lammer's Moor. It is based on a romantic novel by Walter Scott. Scott is an acquired taste and the romantic emotions, struggles and madness bring to mind a grandiose soap opera, without commercials.

The novel enjoyed immense popularity and was seized upon by Gaetano Donizetti as the basis for his opera.

Suozzi read the novel twice -- to her great credit -- and observes that going to the source, "Helped me and the cast to fill in the blank spaces between the major arias. It also helped the singers to better understand where the characters were coming from."

Skylight is not locked into doing "Grand Opera" in the austere tradition of major opera companies. Accordingly, Suozzi acknowledges that changes have been made for her production.

"We made judicious cuts and it really moves," she notes. "We use classical modern images to tell the story. The chorus act as society and wear half masks to make them seem a single united group moving as one body.

Lord Henry Ashton, a bit of a robber baron, has taken over the lands of Edgar of Ravenswood by killing off his kinsmen. His fortunes are waning and he decides to marry off his sister Lucy Ashton to Lord Arthur Bucklaw.

Since Lucy's mother has just died, the family chaplain suggests that might explain her reluctance to marry Arthur. But no, Lucy has fallen (dare I say, madly?) in love with Edgar. She sneaks out to meet Edgar, pledge her love, swear him to secrecy and sing farewell.

"There are some very extreme situations in the opera." says Suozzi. putting it mildly.

In act two, Lucy is shown a forged letter from Edgar proving him faithless. Lord Arthur and the wedding party are due momentarily so Henry insists she save the family by marrying him. The wedding is almost over when Edgar bursts in to claim Lucy. Seeing her signature on the marriage contract, he tears off her ring, curses her, and leaves.

The wedding picks up where it left off with the party minus Lucy and Arthur. The chaplain comes in and tells everyone that Lucy has gone mad and stabbed Arthur to death. Lucy comes in and is clearly crazy. Meanwhile, back at the tomb of his ancestors, Edgar, the last of the Ravenswoods laments Lucy's assumed perfidy. He has agreed to duel Henry to the death. The wedding guests on their way home stop and tell him that Lucy called his name as she was dying. He is going to rush to her side when the chaplain comes in and announces her death. Her body is brought in and Edgar kills himself.

"There are problems for a modern audience," Suozzi says. "Had poor Lucy gone totally mad at a modern wedding, she'd have been put in a padded cell and carefully watched. We had to work to make the ensemble (necessary for the music) credible for a modern audience."

Judging from her calm behavior, one can only assume that she has conquered that and numerous other problems associated with staging a major operatic work.

"Skylight is like no place else," says Suozzi, who has worked in opera companies around the world. "We have a coherent company. This is the finest chorus for an opera that I've ever had. We were able to coordinate the costumes and sets with a color palate that harmonizes with the opera itself. We are able to rehearse under almost ideal conditions."

Milwaukee is lucky to have Suozzi here practicing her craft. With our town as her base, we may share in her creative endeavors.