★★★½☆ Jessica Pratt manages to live up to expectations in a production that’s good, but rarely great.

Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne
April 12, 2016

Lucia di Lammermoor can be a powder keg for purists. At opening night last week, a new production of Donizetti’s gory tragedy at London’s Royal Opera House, starring Diana Damrau, provoked jeers from the audience when director Katie Mitchell dared to offer an explicit and sexually violent portrayal of the doomed heroine’s bloody descent into madness. For many devotees, this opera is a museum artefact, to be adored, respected, but never tampered with. However, traditional doesn’t have to mean dull. Covent Garden’s production may have been suffering from an overabundance of direction, but Victorian Opera’s vintage staging is hindered by a distinct lack of theatrical insight.

Director Cameron Menzies has, at least, been blessed with some impressive resources, the most notable of which is Australian coloratura star Jessica Pratt. It seems fitting that the last time Lucia di Lammermoor was performed at Her Majesty’s Theatre, in 1965, it starred one of the greatest Lucias of all time, La Stupenda herself, Joan Sutherland, performing opposite a 30-year-old up and coming tenor named Pavarotti. Pratt is surely an artist destined to earn the same iconic stature and enduring legacy as Sutherland, and her account of Lucia – a role that she has performed more than any other – made good on her reputation as one of the world’s most insightful and adept performers of the bel canto canon. 

Jessica Pratt and Carlos E Bárcenas

Of course, this is a voice capable of some jaw-dropping pyrotechnics, but perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of Pratt’s singing is not the power that she can deliver, but the restraint. This willingness to allow such a delicately crafted tone, particularly during the dramatic epicentre of this work, the third act mad scene, shows a total reverence for Donizetti’s ingenuity as a composer, as well as a deep understanding of the vulnerability of this character. In a duet with the spectral, crystalline otherworldliness of a glass harmonica, Pratt’s voice became intertwined with such sympathetic skill that the two sonorities were almost indistinguishable. This was singing that wasn’t just haunting: it was spellbinding. 

Without question, Pratt is the jewel in the crown of this production, but there are other – albeit rough – diamonds within this cast. Carlos E Bárcenas is a very capable and enthusiastic Edgardo, who is clearly eager to prove his skills. After a tentative start, his performance hit its stride, but while this is a fine voice with tremendous body, it lacks the subtleties that are among Pratt’s best qualities. Occasionally, this brute-force approach jarred with the nuance of Donizetti’s music, particularly some of the climactic top notes, which were more terrifying than dramatic. 

The supporting cast also brought many valuable contributions to this performance, particularly the roles of Lucia’s brother Enrico, delivered with charisma by Jose Carbo, and the Machiavellian Raimondo, given a stern solemnity by Jud Arthur. Michael Petruccelli was a pleasing surprise as the ill-fated Lord Arturo Bucklaw, performing this brief role with a suave yet robust confidence (in spite of an absurdly ostentatious costume that Liberace might wince at).

The full company of Victorian Opera

With VO artistic director Richard Mills in the pit, the Orchestra Victoria were in good hands, but sadly Her Majesty’s Theatre is far from the right venue for this kind of opera. With the sound boxed in by this venue’s cramped accommodations, the orchestral palette often felt strangled and imbalanced. Perhaps because of this acoustic disadvantage, the usually rich finesse of Donizetti’ score felt arid and unforgiving, unable to drive the dramatic intention of the plot along with the necessary energy.

With set and costumes lifted from John Copley’s late 1970’s production for Opera Australia, the gothic visuals of this production, with its vaulted arches and imposing staircase, are impressive, if not a little laborious, requiring some lengthy scene changes. However, while poor acoustics, slow transitions and over-the-top costumes might be forgiven, some other shortcomings are harder to overlook.

Lucia di Lammermoor is a story that crackles with a viscerally wrought electricity, not least because the grisly climax is so inevitable, and yet this staging often felt deflated, wooden and in desperate need of more dynamic direction. This opera is entirely about cause and effect – a chain of dominoes that from the very beginning push Lucia ever closer to oblivion. However, this vital crescendo was thready at best, due to an unfortunate dearth of emotional authenticity, hampered by an inexplicably static approach from Menzies. There is much to praise about this Lucia di Lammermoor, and Pratt’s performance alone is deserving of the ticket price, but while this production is often good, it’s rarely great.

Victorian Opera presents Lucia di Lammermoor at Her Majesty’s Theatre until April 12.

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