It’s Charles and Diana all over again, really. Lucia’s self-seeking brother Enrico (which is a funny first name for a Scot, you’d have to say) has a hubby lined-up for his sis and he won’t take no for an answer. His fiefdom’s short of a quid (maybe he has Charles as a brother and he’s been overspending again), so he has Arturo firmly in his sights as a brother-in-law and saviour. Meanwhile, Lucia’s taken a shine to Edgardo, who’s rescued her from a wild bull attack.

It was bound to end in tears. And it does. Apart from the fact Salvatore Cammarano’s libretto is based on Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor, there’s nothing too discernibly Scottish about Gaetano Donizetti’s three-act, three-hour opera. Of course, you can laugh at the intensity of the tragedy if you want, but Scott insisted his historical novel, set during the reign of Queen Anne at the turn of the 18th century, was based on an actual, factual incident. Poetic licence? I expect so.

Opera Australia’s Sydney opening of its brand new showpiece, a co-production with Houston Grand Opera and Teatro La Fenice, got off to a faltering start, just after the overture. The subtitles had started appearing, but where were the performers? Behind the curtain that wouldn’t go up, that’s where. Distinguished (that hardly covers it, since his resume is jaw-dropping) conductor Christian Badea stepped down from the podium, there was an announcement of apology and the opera started afresh. Cool heads prevailed all round and the mishap was all but forgotten, obscured by exceptional performances.

Probably first and foremost among them was Emma Matthews’ Lucia. As Opera Australia truthfully points out on its website (with glee, no doubt), “only a few singers in the world can do justice to Lucia’s Olympian final aria and Emma Matthews is one of them”. Olympian is a good descriptor. Even next to other extended arias in this opera, this is an aria you think is never going to end; not that you’re anxious it should. To stay with the ancient Greek mythological analogy, Matthews puts across a Herculean bel canto performance, as well as a very convincing, compelling theatrical one. Vocally, nothing could do more justice to her range, dynamics, power, or control. It’s a chance to really show off and she doesn’t miss the opportunity. It might just be a career-defining moment for the soprano.

Donizetti writes delicately and, throughout, Matthews observed every nuance, ornament and conceit. At the top end of her register her voice can dance lightly, as if tiptoeing through tulips, or push out so much air you can feel it buffeting your ears in M row, where my partner and I were seated. And it has the purity and clarity of lead crystal. Which she can probably shatter at will. Not only that, as a Lady Macbeth, blood-soaked madwoman, she’s pretty persuasive.

Mind you, she’s in the finest company. Edgardo gets his big moment in the very last scene and Jersey Boy James Valenti’s tenor is like honey, while being as commanding as his physical stature. His, too, was a flawless performance, distinguished by theatrical capability and a voice as firm and handsome as his chiselled, Chesty Bond visage. I’m aware of less than flattering review emanating from the UK for Mr Valenti, but I have to say, on this evidence, I can only regard such reports as the proverbial whingeing of poms.

Jon Abernethy, as Normanno, Enrico’s right-hand man, sounded thin at first, as did the male chorus, but both came into their own as the action progressed. Giorgio Caoduro is to lyric baritone as Valenti is to tenor: his must surely be at the all-time pointy end. Strong, clear, even and supple; to-die for. Dramatically, too, Caoduro acquits himself more than creditably. But Richard Anderson was also there, as Raimondo, the minister, to keep him honest, sporting, arguably, an even richer tonality, as a true bass, as against Caoduro’s elegant basso cantante.

Andrew Brunsdon’s tenor (Arturo, whom Enrico is anxious for his sister to wed, for fiscal and prestige reasons) was mellifluous, but struggled, by comparison with other voices, to surmount the power of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, sounding particularly fine under Badea’s baton. Teresa La Rocca was workmanlike and seemed a little uncertain of herself when it came to playing the part of Lucia’s maid and confessor, Alisa.

All things considered, this is possibly the most thrilling array of vocal talent I’ve yet seen on an Australian opera stage. Couple the collective prodigy with Donizetti’s dazzling score and it’s musical nirvana.

There are problems, however. And, no, I’m not worried about the technical hitch.

The chorus is charged with a semblance of theatricality on this occasion to which it doesn’t, on the whole, rise. There are one or two faces visibly making an effort to feign  concern at the moment of  Lucia’s husband’s brutal murder, but the rest look blank. Director John Doyle ought to demand more.

Jane Cox’s lighting design is, at times, questionable: shadows can be too long and distracting, as is the intermittent creep of the staggered curtains, adorned with dark clouds. There seems to be no good reason to have them shifting so often. I’m sure designer Liz Ascroft has a rationale, but it’s not discernible in practice. In fact, it’s just downright annoying. Aside from the scene featuring a massive banquet table cloaked in an Omo-white cloth in which the bloody Lucia wars herself and a decent job of costuming, the design is too cold (even for a Scottish moor in the dead of winter), putting me in mind of the spoiler that was such a fugly feature of Sydney Theatre Company’s Long Day’s Journey Into The Night, some little while ago.

My advice? Close your eyes (but sleep not) for all but the find scenes. You’ll be in heaven long before Lucia gets there.

The details: Lucia di Lammermoor plays the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House until November 2. The production moves to Melbourne’s State Theatre, Arts Centre on November 19. Tickets on the company website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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