Lucia di Lammermoor
His Majesty's Theatre
Well, it just goes to show. Last week I was ready to rail in this review against tired productions of overlong operas foisted on a taxpaying public which deserves better. After Saturday night, I changed my mind.
Based on Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott's 1819 historical novel The Bride of Lammermoor, Donizetti's 1835 three-act opera Lucia di Lammermoor is one of the most celebrated examples of the bel canto, or beautiful singing, style. Set in Scotland in the late 17th century, the opera follows the fate of star-crossed lovers Lucia, sister of Enrico, laird of Lammermoor, and her paramour and Enrico's mortal enemy, Edgardo, laird of Ravenswood.
Enrico is in dire straits politically and financially. His only way out is to marry his sister to Arturo, laird of Bucklaw. Lucia takes exception to this plan. Tragedy ensues.
The present, traditional production was designed by Henry Bardon and originally directed by John Copley in 1980, with costumes by Michael Stennett and lighting by Donn Byrnes.
Opera Australia is presenting a new production later this year, but if this brilliant opening night performance by the WA Opera is anything to go by, there's still plenty of life in the old girl yet.
Bardon's melancholy Gothic ruins, Byrnes' fraught lighting, Stennett's emblematic costumes and Copley's clear, intelligent direction seem a pure extension of Salvatore Cammarano's compact libretto and Donizetti's expansive orchestral word-painting and incomparable vocal writing.
Rehearsal director Julie Edwardson and conductor Brad Cohen are thus able to forcefully enunciate underlying themes such as blind political ambition, familial betrayal and impossible love with ease and confidence - and economy.
On this occasion the chorus moved effortlessly and in complete harmony with its singing. Cohen, a bel canto specialist, conducted a highly responsive WA Symphony Orchestra with the flexible precision the score demands.
But the night belonged to the principals - and to one especially. Award-winning soprano Emma Matthews was last heard in her former home town of Perth in Richard Mills' opera Love of the Nightingale in 2007.
As Lucia she is dazzling, her ability to grapple with her character's descent into madness and Donizetti's demanding coloratura writing culminating in the tour de force that is the famous Mad Scene of Act Three.
Unlike that other great Lucia, Dame Joan Sutherland, from whom Matthews received advice, Matthews' voice is not a big one. But it is agile, pure and capable of great subtlety of expression - perfect for a character whose weakness of will is matched only by the strength of her passions.
Golden-toned American tenor Garrett Sorenson is a fine Edgardo and the chemistry between him and Matthews was palpable.
James Clayton as a menacing yet conflicted Enrico and Daniel Sumegi as Lucia's dignified tutor were equally impressive; so too were Andrew Foote as Normanno, David Woodward as Arturo and Sarah-Janet Brittenden as Alisa.
Lucia di Lammermoor is on tomorrow, Thursday and Saturday.