It was in many ways a case of déjà vu for many opera tragics on the opening night of Victorian Opera’s grandest production of the 2016 season, Lucia di Lammermoor. As impoverished students a short 51 years ago, we had camped out overnight in front of Her Majesty’s Theatre to secure Standing Room Only tickets for what promised to be the experience of a lifetime – which it was.
Local opera diva Deborah Cheetham has often been called upon to recount her life changing experience of hearing Joan Sutherland as the Merry Widow at the Sydney Opera House and there is no doubt that a superlative performance can act as a permanent change in perspective, inspiring endeavor and/or a much fuller appreciation of an art form.
In addition to La Stupenda, the opening night of the Sutherland-Williamson International Grand Opera Company’s season in 1965 also starred a tenor much less familiar to Australian audiences: Luciano Pavarotti. With two of the all-time greats of bel canto repertoire, it was a Lucia-Edgardo match of heavenly design, possibly never to be equaled. But some singers have come pretty close. Even in that 1965 season a glorious Elizabeth Harwood was a Lucia in some ways equally compelling – great physical and vocal beauty were combined with a strong dramatic presence and persuasive musicality. Of more recent date, Emma Matthews has made her mark with a Mad Scene of huge emotional force and technical brilliance in John Doyle’s production for Opera Australia of 2012. There have also been a number of notable overseas performances screened in local cinemas, but these cannot be compared with the thrill of a live performance by the best singers.
And Jessica Pratt is certainly one of these. Despite having to contend with the expectations raised by the hype surrounding her as the successor to Melba and Dame Joan, she still amazes. With limited opportunity to warm up, her ability to sustain a smooth legato line in Lucia’s initial aria, “Regnava nel silenzio”, was truly impressive. Although she has the art of soft singing honed to pinpoint perfection, her voice has substance and was always audible, including in the weightier ensembles such as the famous sextet at the end of Act 2. Her skill in floating her voice in long, high pianissimo phrases was most striking in the Mad Scene, where she was accompanied by a haunting, otherworldly glass harmonica. Pratt’s flexibility and wide range produced streams of impressive bravura and stratospheric top notes, generally without apparent effort. Laudable as her acting in the Mad Scene was, the overall effect of the scene lacked emotional intensity. This may well have been at least in part due to Cameron Menzies’ direction, which tended to be on the static side; the reaction of other characters in OA’s Doyle production had given the scene much of its devastating pathos.
Emotional energy seemed greater in the scene where Lucia’s brother, Enrico, persuades her to marry Lord Arturo, an ally whom he needs to bolster his precarious fortunes. As Enrico, Jose Carbo was more smiling, Machiavellian villain than overbearing brute. Cajoling, manipulative and deceitful he was a detestable egotist intent on exploiting his sister’s vulnerabilities in order to maintain power. The interchange between Pratt and Carbo was nicely focused as they appeared to become increasingly enlivened by building on each other’s performance momentum. The absence of support for Lucia from her chaplain and tutor Raimondo, sung by an increasingly sonorous Judd Arthur, accentuated the distressful situation.
Apart from the star diva attraction, Carlos E. Bárcenas was a key point of interest in this production. His vocal development and increasing assurance has been carefully nurtured by Victorian Opera and the role of Edgardo was a major test of his progress. He is tall, handsome and blessed with a beautiful voice, and his potential for outstanding vocal excellence and as a commanding stage presence has developed with each role he has undertaken. As Edgardo he appeared to relax as the opera progressed, becoming more animated and engaged in the final scene, which after all does belong to the tenor. He sang with a clear, firm tone throughout the opera, taking a series of high notes that would have been the envy of the tenors appearing as Manrico in the Opéra Bastille’s Il Trovatore and as Calaf in the Met’s Turandot screened in Melbourne over the last couple of weeks.
In the more minor roles, Michael Lapiña opened the opera on a pleasingly ringing note as Normanno, giving as energetic performance as the production permitted; Michael Petruccelli was vocally a little clouded but gave the role of Arturo a dashingly vain edge; and Shakira Tsindos was a sympathetic Alisa.
Although some voices tended to dominate in the male chorus, the full chorus made a stirring contribution to the Act 2, especially the finale. Unlike the orchestra, they created a solid sound with good impact. Orchestra Victoria is a very fine orchestra, but appeared to suffer from the acoustic idiosyncrasies of the pit and theatre. The overture was muffled (perhaps not inappropriately at that point) but the sound remained dampened throughout, despite some excellent playing. This may have accounted for a couple of uncertainties regarding intonation in Act 1; both singers and audience seemed to home in on the orchestral sound more effectively as the opera progressed. Nevertheless, when the quasi glass harmonica accompanied Jessica Pratt, the heating system added a third voice at the softest most exquisite moments. Not as intrusive as some possibilities, but still…
At least the young group of secondary school singers at the front of the theatre would have heard everything with greater immediacy. A more traditional design and production would have suited them too, with contained action focusing on the main protagonists, and sets featuring atmospheric Scottish gloom animated by Donn Byrnes’ strategic use of spots and soft floods. The aspect of this performance that will remain with them, however, is the singing. They can say they heard Jessica Pratt in her signature role when she was at the top of her game. Conductor (and educator) Richard Mills would be pleased that they gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up.
LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR
Her Majesty’s Theatre
Picture by Marcello Orselli