Somewhere in Scotland, sometime in the past, a brother seeks to save his family’s fortune by marrying his sister off to a rich nobleman.
Unfortunately, she is desperately in love with her brother’s archenemy. The marriage goes ahead but – spoiler alert – it doesn’t end well.
Lucia, the title role of Gaetano Donizetti’s bel canto masterpiece, is notorious among opera lovers.
Demanding an almost freakish range, both in pitch and emotion, the climactic ‘mad scene’ has become the ultimate testing ground for power sopranos.
Think Maria Callas. Think Joan Sutherland. Or, more to the point, try not to think of them as the curtain goes up on soprano Jessica Pratt in Opera Australia’s latest production.
Jessica Pratt’s Sydney Opera House debut is long overdue. She was booked to appear in the title role of Lakmé back in 2012 – incidentally, the year in which this production of Lucia had its first outing, with Emma Matthews in the role – but had to withdraw due to other commitments.
She appeared as Violetta in La Traviata in Melbourne in 2015 but Sydney opera fans have had to wait. Worth it? Oh yes. Most certainly yes.
Pratt is not the most demonstrative of actors, but her voice is an uncanny mixture of power and intricacy: the delicate coloratura trips out with the graceful precision of a prima ballerina; she cuts through the orchestral timbres with a dazzling but never brash edge; and she lands on those extraordinary top notes like a gymnast doing a perfect round-off. It’s quite something.
Indeed, Pratt is one of the main reasons to see this torrid tale of love and madness. You certainly wouldn’t go for the action. Director John Doyle’s austere production, restaged here by Roger Press, is almost perversely lacking in drama.
A bare stage, a chorus dressed in uniform black, moving in robotic harmony, while the principal characters hold forth: it feels almost like a parody of the ‘stand and deliver’ operatic tradition, but without the usual lavish scenery and fireworks.
In the famous sextet at the end of Act II, for example, the protagonists stand in a line across the front of the stage, musically united but visually isolated in their own pools of light. It’s a wonderful showcase for Donizetti’s vocal writing, but the warmth and ardour of the singing cannot thaw the bloodless direction.
Thank goodness for the music. Conductor Carlo Montanaro whips up the Opera Australia Orchestra into a nimble and responsive band, and harpist Jane Rosenson, flutist Elizabeth Pring and cellist Eszter Mikes-Liu shine in their extended solos. Meanwhile, on stage, Giorgio Caoduro is a tough and gnarly Enrico and John Longmuir is a suitably repellent Arturo.
Richard Anderson and Benjamin Rasheed, in the thankless roles of Raimondo and Normanno, both struggle to be heard over the orchestra and Jane Ede is a discreet Alisa.
And then there’s the other compelling reason to see this show. American tenor Michael Fabiano is commanding as lovestruck Edgardo, upping the emotional energy with his exciting, fiery-edged tone and explosive stage presence. It’s a performance which makes the terminal gloom of the production worth enduring, if only to say “I was there when Michael Fabiano and Jessica Pratt did Lucia in Sydney.”
Next stop, the world.