Lucia di Lammermoor | Opera AustraliaLeft - Emma Matthews as Lucia. Cover - Emma Matthews, Eric Culter & Kanen Breen.  Photos - Branco Gaica

Once you accept that Doninzetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor is essentially Brigadoon with an Italian accent (and perhaps just a hint more death...) and stop wanting or wishing it to be grand opera in the Verdi mode, then everything suddenly falls into place.

With more tartan than Edinburgh on Burns Night, britches and bustles galore and a hefty dollop of swashbuckling, John Copley’s 1980 production (revived by Luise Napier), today feels as dramatically anachronistic as it is historically faithful. Yet in many ways this aged pantomime dame of a production is the perfect foil to Donizetti’s highland romp, playing its fairly extraordinary convolutions of plot and emotion with the straight-faced affection that they deserve, and making more sense of this celebration of operatic extravagance than any pared-down contemporary rendering.

Henry Bardon’s set was a miracle of heavy-duty construction, with the wooded glades, cavernous vaulted interiors and secret grottos of Scott’s gothicke novel brought lovingly (if somewhat creakingly) to life, and was exploited to its full potential in the intelligent movement direction. At the close of each act the curtain would fall and rise again to reveal a dramatic tableau. Softly lit and beautifully constructed, each image was a three dimensional Dutch painting of surprising charm and life.

Musically Donizetti’s Lucia poses some serious challenges, and not all of them technical. Even with the glorious richness of tone and dramatic commitment supplied by Jose Carbo (as Lucia’s brother Enrico) and Eric Cutler (as Lucia’s lover, Edgardo), it is very hard to take a vengeance duet seriously when the music itself lilts along in a brisk 4/4 like a Neapolitan folk song. After the ominous horn calls with which the opera opens there is really very little music in the minor key, which –  in an opera that treats subjects of murder and madness – requires disbelief being not so much suspended as ushered out on indefinite leave. While the frenetic major key meanderings of the mad scene add a certain painful poignancy to the action, elsewhere the drama struggles to compensate for the atmospheric deficiency of the music.

Emma Matthews, making her debut in the opera’s title role, was in characteristically silver-voiced form, and her performance only grew in sparkle and assurance as the evening progressed, culminating in a top Eb so exact that it was in danger of devaluing the sheer stamina involved. Cosmetic though it may be, it was such a delight, vocally as much as physically, to have a young and vivacious Lucia – a character whose dramas and histrionics are so much those of youth. With Richard Bonynge as conductor, the shadow of Dame Joan herself was always going to loom over proceedings. The lightness and energy of Matthews herself however ensured that comparisons never obtruded into the immediate life of this latest operatic incarnation.

While the central trio of Matthews, Carbo and Cutler formed as strong a vocal line-up as has yet been fielded by Opera Australia this season, there were disappointments in the supporting cast, including a rather woolly Alisa from Rosemary Gunn, and Richard Anderson's somewhat stiff Raimondo. It was uncertain what exactly went wrong with the first chorus entry, but the precarious listing of ensemble that resulted has been something of recurring issue recently – perhaps owing to the inevitably tight rehearsal periods – and detracting from their strong vocal performances.

Opera Australia’s Lucia di Lammermoor is a product of its (considerable) age, and as with all things elderly should be treated with affectionate respect and indulgence. Give over to the slower rhythms and quaintly atmospheric charms of this production however and the rewards are considerable, with Matthews and the rest of the young cast bringing a stylish flair to music that, for all its dramatic flaws, still represents some of the best tunes in the opera canon.

Opera Australia presents
Lucia di Lammermoor

Venue: Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Dates/Times: Evenings @ 7.30pm – July 30; August 5, 12, 16, 19, 22 & 27
Matinees: 1.00pm, August 2, 9 & 30
Tickets: $65 - $246
Bookings: Opera Australia (02) 9318 8200 | Sydney Opera House (02) 9250 7777

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