Wednesday, October 17, 2012


By Gaetano Donizetti,

Opera Australia at the Sydney Opera House until November 2.
Arts Centre Melbourne from 19th November 
Performance 3rd October reviewed by Bill Stephens
Emma Matthews as Lucio, Giorgo Caodura as Enrico
Photo: Branco Gaica

Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”, with its famous mad scene, is perhaps the Everest of the operatic repertoire.  It’s an opera that makes such demands on the voice and acting abilities of the singers, it can be career-defining for those who master its challenges.   

Joan Sutherland and June Bronhill made their debuts in “Lucia di Lammermoor” in the same year. For Sutherland it became her signature role, while Bronhill’s career took a different direction. For Emma Mathews, her astonishing performance as Lucia in John Doyle’s sombre new production for Opera Australia consolidates her reputation as the finest Australian bel canto soprano of her generation.                                                                                                                                                             
Emma Matthews as Lucia, James Valenti as Edgardo
Photo: Branco Gaica

Set in Scotland, “Lucia di Lammermoor” tells the story of Lucia Ashton (Emma Mathews) who falls in love with Edgardo Ravenswood (James Valenti).  Theirs is a doomed relationship as their families have been feuding for centuries.   Very much against her will, Lucia is forced into a marriage with the wealthy Lord Arturo (Andew Brunsdon) by her  brother Enrico (Giorgio Caoduro) with disasterous results. 
Emma Matthews as Lucia, Giorgio Caoduro as Enrico
Photo Branco Gaica
Emma Mathews as Lucia, Giorgio Caoduro as Enrico
Jonathan Abenathy as Normanno, Andrew Brunsdon as Arturo (obscured)
Photo: Branco Gaica

Anyone expecting grand Scottish castles and lavish costumes will be disappointed as the Liz Ascroft’s setting for this “Lucia” is determinedly abstract and gloomy. The action appears to take place in a cloudy grey setting, rather reminiscent of photographer’s background paper.  From time to time, large horizontal and diagonal backdrops move up and down to change the stage focus, but apart from a large table in the final scene there is very little to suggest time or place.  The huge chorus wear identical drab costumes in varying monotone shades,  and move in formal choreographed rows, providing a sculptural scenic element and appearing more as observers than participants.

This gloominess works remarkably well in that it focusses the attention unrelentingly on the remarkable cast of principals, who indeed wear fine period costumes, and interact energetically, while the superb chorus, artfully lit by Jane Cox, form monumental stage pictures behind them.
Male Chorus (Note: Damien Hall foreground centre)
Photo: Branco Gaica

Every inch the beautiful Scottish noblewoman, Emma Matthews has the stagecraft to match her voice and looks and uses her voluminous costumes to great effect in the earlier scenes, especially in her confrontations with Enrico in Act 11.  Perhaps the bloodiest Lucia ever, in Act 111 she first appears in a plain white nightdress, hands, face and garment liberally splattered with blood. Then as the mainly emotionless chorus watch her, she prowls the stage, unexpectedly bounding on to the huge banquet table, where she slumps into a foetal position, attempts to wash away the blood in a huge bowl, and eventually drapes herself in the huge white tablecloth, creating a series of unforgettable images, all the while tossing off ravishing bravura coloratura passages to express her grief and madness.  It’s a very physical and totally arresting performance.
Emma Matthews as Lucia
Photo: Branco Gaica

But, as unforgettable as it is, Emma Mathew’s performance is not the only reason why this production is so memorable.  Opera Australia has surrounded her with a quartet of outstanding male singers, headed by charismatic Italian baritone Giorgio Caoduro as Lucia’s conniving brother, Enrico, and picture-book handsome American tenor James Valenti, making his Australian debut as Lucia’s lover, Edgardo.  Both have superb voices and presence.  Opera Australia’s own Richard Anderson, as Lucia’s tutor, Raimondo, Andrew Brunsdon, as the unfortunate Arturo and Teresa La Rocca, in the only other female role as Lucia’s maid , Ailsa, complete an exceptional cast who, under the experienced baton of conductor, Christian Badea, who confidently martials the huge orchestral and vocal resources necessary to do justice for Donizetti’s ravishing score, produce a stunningly successful visual  and aural realization of this operatic masterpiece.   
James Valenti as Edgardo, Richard Anderson as Raimondo
Opera Australia Chorus
Photo: Branco Gaica


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