While opera’s sweetheart Emma Matthews is the star attraction, the quality of the full company of Lucia di Lammermoor makes for an evening of superb singing.
Billed as a new production, the staging, however, turns out to be more an Emperor’s New Clothes, with the grounds and great hall of Ravenswood all represented by clouds. All spaces rather than places, designer Liz Ascroft’s ominous grey cloud backdrop, cloud curtain and cloud side tabs rise and fall as the scenes progress, presenting the work as only barely a notch above a concert setting.
Director John Doyle, known to music theatre fans for his Company and Sweeney Todd in which the actors played the instruments, has slowed proceedings to a pensive, tightly modulated pace, taking advantage of the stripped back stage to place full focus on the emotional and psychological intricacies of the intensely dramatic plot.
Jane Cox’s lighting design makes effective use of shadows, with each entrance of Lucia’s telegraphed ahead by her giant looming shadow on the walls. In another clever touch, the insane Lucia sees her shadow on the wall and thinks it is her lover Edgardo come to rescue her.
If we are cheated out of a set, we are certainly not cheated out of a chorus, with the most ample ensemble in many a year gracing the stage. Bravo to Michael Black for first rate chorus preparation. Although the chorus singing is excellent, they are somewhat let down by direction and costuming. Being stationary and walking very slowly works for some sections but, for example, the dynamic music of the opening chorus “Percorrette le spiagge vicine,” is wasted on men standing still rather than aggressively hunting down the Ravenswood trespasser. As the blood spattered bride moves between them, the reactions of the wedding guests are completely underdone. Also, the fact that Ascroft has dressed these guests in the darkest of shades seems completely inexplicable. Richly lustrous costumes for the lead characters are more successful, helping particularly to distinguish the relatively high number of male characters.
As with the concurrent season of Madama Butterfly, Orchestra Victoria greatly benefits from an international guest conductor. Guillaume Tourniaire maintains the tightest of controls over dynamics and tempi, presiding over an exquisite rendition of Donizetti’s gloriously melodious score. The youthful Tourniaire, dressed against type in casual clothes, showed such energy in the final bars that his baton went flying through the air.
It is difficult to think of another Australian artist of the stage, be it in opera, musicals, ballet or plays, who is steadily developing a body work of such a consistently high calibre as Emma Matthews. The unique aspect of her talent is that her nightingale voice is matched, and indeed complemented, by the strength of her of her acting ability. She immerses herself in role after role – Violetta, Amina, Gilda, the Hoffmann heroines, Giuletta, Cleopatra and more – creating distinct, believable, highly empathetic heroines who break your heart time after time. Matthews’ work here as Lucia is another grand accomplishment, with her central performance alone worth the ticket price. To say that Opera Australia audiences rarely if ever give standing ovations is no reflection on the quality of the productions but rather a cultural practice. Last night, however, the audience spontaneously leapt to their feet to cheer for Matthews in an extended, extremely well deserved ovation.
Softly girlish in voice, Matthews effortlessly conveys Lucia’s rapid journey from young woman in love to hopelessly powerless woman crushed by the patriarchy as if a possession to be bought and sold. Her mad scene is a masterpiece of reckless abandon as the barefooted Lucia runs, jumps, climbs and lies about the set, her vocal cadenzas punctuating the ravings with unexpected shifts in power, volume, pitch and tone. It is the performance of an artist in full command of their powers portraying someone who has lost all control of theirs.
A highly impressive set of co-stars provide sterling support. Italian bass Giorgio Caodura glistens with delectable menace as Enrico, desperately manipulative brother of Lucia. Caodura’s pure, clear baritone thrills the audience, especially when joined by Matthews for Enrico and Lucia’s duets in act two. Talented Australian bass David Parkin heightens the role of chaplain and confidante Raimondo with a commanding presence, adding great authority to his singing. Rising tenor Stephen Smith shines brightly but all too briefly in the thankless role of the ill-fated Arturo. Young Artist Jonathan Abernathy sings the role of huntsman Normanno with ease, and displays composure in the extended sequences in which Doyle had Normanno the centre of focus on the stage.
If there is a singer who surprises in this production it is Aldo di Toro as Edgardo. Di Toro replaces dashing American tenor James Valenti, who was only brought out for the Sydney season (but whose image is, somewhat deceptively, shown on the poster in Melbourne). Di Toro may not have the height or looks to appear overly convincing as Lucia’s true love, but the rich, creamy pleasure of his beautiful tenor voice brushes any such concern aside. Di Toro sings the role superbly, the divine duet with Lucia, “Veranno a te sull’aure,” being just one of the highlights.
With all of these wonderful singers, it goes without saying that the famous sextet, “Chi mi frena in tal momento,” is sublime.
Lucia di Lammermoor continues at the State Theatre until 15 December 2012.
Photos: Jeff Busby
This review published on Theatre People 20 November 2012.