Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
June 28, 2018
Of those operas that come trailing a laundry list of expectations, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor sits somewhere near the very top. And when you’ve got the delicious prospect of two of the world’s leading exponents of their roles in Jessica Pratt and Michael Fabiano, expectations are elevated to a dangerous degree. I’m therefore delighted to report that opening night of Opera Australia’s presentation of this bel canto masterpiece did not disappoint, shot through with electricity, superb singing and a sure sense of drama. It can be a rare thing to encounter just one of these things – all three in one night is an operatic white whale.
Jessica Pratt in Opera Australia’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Photo © Prudence Upton
Seen here in a minimalist, atmospheric production by John Doyle (revived by Roger Press), action is moved to the early Romantic period with the emphasis on establishing a cold, impersonal world of men. Male choristers are dressed in the same drab, grey and black period clothing, a looming, impenetrable mass that makes the modest stage of the Joan Sutherland feel even more claustrophobic. Heavy screens that are sometimes monolithic and grey – or across which clouds lour and flit – are effective, but make for some awkward stage pictures which add little to the drama when coming down at irregular angles or raised a third of the way up. These visual distractions are redeemed by Jane Cox’s moody and beautiful lighting.
Conceptually, there are a few bumps in the road. Normanno’s role (ably played by Benjamin Rasheed) is expanded to a bewildering degree that has no pay off at the end. Certainly he represents how women are under constant surveillance in this world, but elevating his level of involvement doesn’t say a great deal about his character and seems only to justify the opening of a cut in Act III (more on this later). He skulks quite a bit, then stands square in a spotlight only for Lucia and Edgardo to rush past him blindly.
Benjamin Rasheed and ensemble. Photo © Prudence Upton
The cast also tends to default too often to stock operatic gestures, something that can probably be laid at the feet of the director. The men did a lot of crying into and pounding of walls, with Pratt fainting as many times as she let out an E Flat, no mean feat considering high notes seem to come as naturally to her as speaking.
Despite this, Doyle’s production contains enough intriguing details to elevate what could be a fairly traditional staging. For instance, when the family chaplain Raimondo urges Lucia to sacrifice herself for the good of the family, the women choristers make their first entrance in the opera, impassive and anonymous. In this world, women are necessary forms of currency that can be used to smooth over rifts and broker resolution, but have little to no say in their own fates.
Earlier in the piece, Normanno has the presumption to seat himself in Enrico’s chair, but quickly leaps to embarrassed, resentful attention with just the touch of his employer’s hand. It’s a small, throwaway detail that again speaks volumes about what kind of society this is, one in which men jostle for dominance and the preservation of rank and propriety trump all.
More consistent were the musical values. From the mournful and measured overture, the Opera Australia Orchestra under Carlo Montanaro proved themselves very fine indeed, providing the singers with exemplary support. This is paramount when it comes to bel canto. Montanaro favoured brisk tempi that kept things moving along nicely, but his pacier reading sometimes glossed over Donizetti’s most atmospheric orchestrations. Still, the harp playing leading up to Ancor non giunse was ravishing, with push-pull tension established by the players in the opera’s most important confrontations. This was a lithe account that the singers were obviously comfortable with.
Though all three principals were splendid, baritone Giorgio Caoduro’s ability to bring voice and drama into perfect alignment made for the night’s most satisfyingly full portrayal. He made for an unusually young Enrico, whose desperation and vicious behaviour often felt like ways to compensate for just how terribly out of his depth he was. Singing with a native’s linguistic authority, he did justice to his first act aria, elevating Donizetti’s less than imaginative table-setting opener to something that felt overwhelmingly urgent. He was also unafraid of interrupting his molten legato line for matters of expression, painting Enrico as a bullying aristocrat who’s gone to seed. Caoduro’s acting was furthermore unimpeachable.
Richard Anderson and Giorgio Caoduro. Photo © Prudence Upton
Lucia is the role with which Pratt made her professional debut, and that experience shows. She accesses her top with almost ridiculous ease, while her basic sound has an appealingly cool purity to it. Not uncommon for her voice type, Pratt’s middle flickers in and out of focus at times, while her bottom has a slight hollowness to it. These issues were present in Regnava nel silenzio, but cleverly managed by her impeccable legato and easy piano singing. During the aria, Pratt hovered perilously close to the stage apron, peering into the pit as if she were looking into the depths of her bloody fonte, a moment that was transfixing. A spirited Quando rapito in estasi allowed her to shine, with her tasteful ornamentations showing off her pinpoint coloratura and formidable trill. Jane Ede as Alisa sometimes struggled to slice through some of the denser orchestrations, but had an easy, sympathetic rapport with Pratt.
As Edgardo, Fabiano gave a thrillingly full-throttle performance that was always alive to the text and the shifting moods of each situation. On record as saying that he believes Edgardo to be madder than Lucia, his anguished performance certainly bears that out. Fabiano’s Italianate instrument has substantial power that is sometimes wielded inelegantly, however. He does piano and forte very well, but greater dynamic variation would further enhance what is already a very accomplished, exciting vocal assumption. From his entrance, he was in virile voice and had natural chemistry with Pratt, handling the recits quite naturally and with a sure sense of rhythmic acuity. His Edgardo is here terribly confident of his ability to placate Enrico, making what unfolds perhaps even more shattering to his grip on reality. In Verranno a te sull’aure, Pratt and Fabiano made the ravishing vocal lines seem utterly and disturbingly unmoored from reality, their farewell wrenching and abrupt when it came.
Michael Fabiano and Jessica Pratt. Photo © Prudence Upton
The confrontation between Lucia and Enrico in Act II was thankfully given the dramatic weight that it deserves. A contest of wills, it not only allows Lucia a moment of resistance but also provides insight into Enrico’s overwhelming sense of family duty. Elegantly and insinuatingly sung by Caoduro, his Enrico is no mad barker – rather, he retains a slippery veneer of the reasonable and respectable in his dealings with Lucia, making his later viciousness all the more frightening. As for Pratt, the amount of fear she manages to wring out of “che fia” as she hears the approach of Arturo deserves its own paragraph, as does the wilting desperation of her “o ciel”.
Although dispatched effortlessly and of a lovely finish, Pratt’s substantial ornamentation felt a bit extraneous here – a chaster approach might have allowed her to dig further into the drama and give some added point and fire to her phrasing. However, she brought a beautiful legato to the larghetto Soffriva nel pianto, refining her tone into a plaintive thread of silver.
Giorgio Caoduro and Jessica Pratt. Photo © Prudence Upton
As this scene moves into her exchange with Raimondo, Pratt is directed to recollect herself far too quickly considering how distressed she was just a moment ago. Richard Anderson acquits himself well as the family chaplain, painting him as fundamentally decent yet still a potent accessory to Enrico’s coercions, while Pratt effectively conveys how the spectre of her unhappy mother’s ghost is what finally forces her to accept Enrico’s plans to marry her off to Arturo.
John Longmuir is always a welcome presence, and his Arturo was sung with idiomatic Italian and style. He also does great, subtle acting in the brief time he’s onstage, all too aware that he’s saving Enrico’s bacon and obviously scornful of the family’s obsequiousness and airs.
The marriage contract scene needs more time to settle in, but was pulled off effectively for the most part – Pratt brought her pathos-laden thread of sound to this key moment, eyes downcast and seemingly divorced from her own corporeality. However, the famous sextet was taken at a very fast clip, when a slightly broader tempo is probably more in keeping with a moment that’s detached from real time.
Giorgio Caoduro and John Longmuir. Photo © Prudence Upton
In fine fettle on opening, the Opera Australia Chorus needed to be a lot more impassioned when closing ranks against Edgardo, while Anderson sounded underpowered when invoking his divine authority. A stronger directorial hand would have allowed Pratt to go even further in her anguish here – she receded into the background a bit when Fabiano took the stage. On top form, he was at first solicitous and beseeching, desperate for Lucia to prove the others wrong, then utterly frightening in his feelings of betrayal.
The restoration of the Wolf’s Crag scene is to be applauded. It further reinforces the feud between the warring clans, with both Caoduro and Fabiano more than rising to the challenge. The former’s nasty taunt – that Lucia is enjoying her marriage bed – was superbly done, while their closing duet had all the requisite blood and thunder.
Jessica Pratt and ensemble. Photo © Prudence Upton
And the Mad Scene? It’s a more forthright, less dazed performance than I’ve probably ever seen or heard before. On opening, there was a definite sense that Pratt was pacing herself when you want at least the appearance of complete, wild-haired abandon. Despite this air of restraint, she brought a wealth of detail to proceedings through her phrasing and vocal colouring. Staccati were done daringly soft and perfectly articulated, with trills perfectly in place. Again, that thread of sound returned in the all-important phrase “alfin son tua”, with Pratt imbuing “alfin sei mio” with so much quiet love and longing that it was heart-wrenching. The cadenza was done with breathtaking precision, with wonderful support from the pit, and all money notes eye-wateringly impressive.
Michael Fabiano and ensemble. Photo © Prudence Upton
It is therefore unfortunate that this production has restored the often-cut finale of this scene, where Normanno is denounced as an informer. Opening this cut felt completely anticlimactic, robbing Pratt of her deserved moment and cutting short the tension she had so carefully built, particularly as the segue to the final scene then had to unfold right before the audience’s eyes.
Thankfully, this was redeemed by Fabiano’s fantastic accounts of Tombe degli avi miei and Tu che a Dio. So often the opera can seem more or less over when the curtain comes down on the Mad Scene, but this felt like a necessary moment of catharsis. Edgardo is here laid waste with rage and grief – again, Fabiano can afford to give much less voice, but it seems petty to hold it against him when there’s such vivid storytelling of this order. In fact, that’s my greatest takeaway from this Lucia, one in which everyone has come together to tell the best story they can.
Opera Australia’s Lucia di Lamermoor is at the Joan Sutherland Theatre until July 27