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Sitting next to James Valenti in the Sydney Opera House green room, I feel like I’m interviewing a soap opera star, not an opera singer. The tall American tenor with matinee idol good looks is turning left and right – as if trying to decide on his best side – and gesturing theatrically as he explains his inner turmoil as Edgardo in Opera Australia’s new production of Lucia di Lammermoor.
“Her clan has killed his family and he swore to have vengeance and to redeem his family name, yet he’s fallen in love with her. He’s manic in the first duet. He’s happy to see her but then he’s like, ‘I have to do this… But then your family… But when I see you… But I can’t, I can’t do it!... I just can’t resist the way I feel about you, but…’ He’s kind of scary. These are very visceral emotions.”
On paper, there can be no mistaking Valenti for a B-grade soap star. The 34-year-old recently made his Covent Garden and Met debuts as Alfredo in La Traviata, singing opposite Angela Gheorghiu in New York. And for his first outing at the Sydney Opera House, he is modeling his performance not on The Bold and the Beautiful, but on an Australian actor. “I think of him as Mel Gibson in Braveheart. He’s a rash, passionate warrior; one moment he’s tender and the next he’s slicing someone’s head off.” It’s an apt image for this tale of star-crossed lovers, war, political machinations and tragedy set on the Scottish moors.
But it’s his leading lady, Emma Matthews, who spills most of the blood as Lucia in the famous Mad Scene. “She’s like a machine – I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a Lucia with this much facility,” Valenti says of the prima donna. “She just has such an ease of coloratura and range and the cadenza she does in the Mad Scene – I sit in my dressing room thinking, ‘Man, I’ve got to follow this!’”
This is the second time the soprano has been delayed for one of our interviews because she’s had to scrub the fake blood off. “I’ve got bruises in between my legs where the blood sticks,” she winces. “I go to a place that’s very vulnerable, but I just have to be brave. I’ve got to believe it and go there and not be self-conscious in any way.”
Matthews says that the long solo aria, after the reluctant bride has stabbed her husband and lost her mind, requires her to tap into her own emotional extremes as a woman. “I get myself into a state backstage beforehand of being broken. I’m broken. She’s like a lost little girl again. In this production they’re saying that I’ve been raped in the bedroom; he’s been violent with me. That’s why there’s extra blood.”
The flame-red hair and blood-spattered gown of ghostly white is one of the most iconic images in opera, and one that has become synonymous with Dame Joan Sutherland. The late Australian soprano and her husband, maestro Richard Bonynge, originally taught Matthews the role that has now become her own. Now, the younger singer has created her own cadenza for the soaring climax of the Mad Scene, enlisting the help of Christian Badea, who conducts the current run of performances. “He’s very particular. He has got me to use the soft singing in my voice in a way I’ve not done before – it’s exhilarating.”
Matthews last appeared as Lucia in the 1970s staging made famous by Sutherland. “It’s such a postcard production, but it’s time for a change,” she admits. John Doyle’s new incarnation, in stark contrast to its stiflingly traditional predecessor, is cast in the modern abstraction mould: minimal, bleak and grey. “The fountain is visualised rather than being there,” explains Matthews. “You have to do a lot more as a singer and actor to get the audience to imagine what you are, and that’s a big challenge.” Valenti adds that it “puts the focus on the singers”.
The tenor’s experience of Sydney outside of rehearsals, however, has been far from gloomy and grey. “I’m going to learn how to surf next week in Bondi,” he enthuses. “I was invited to a rip-roaring party [hosted by Justin Hemmes’, owner of inner-city nightclub The Ivy]. There were models everywhere. I was the random opera singer guy, so that was kind of cool.
“I was surprised when I saw the size of the theatre, but just to tell people you’re singing at the Sydney Opera House, all my friends are like, ‘Wow’. That’s my office.”