Lucia di Lammermoor (or most of it), G. Donizetti. Sydney Opera House Friday 28th Sept 2012. 7.30pm
Dear Colleagues in opera,
It was like old times again! The opera company has got together a very auspicious cast for Lucia di Lammermoor at the Sydney Opera House.
It seems remarkable that Emma Matthews can successfully step into the roles of Joan Sutherland despite having a completely different voice type. Yet ‘canary’ type singers used to sing most of these roles before Maria Callas opened the way for changed possibilities. And Ms Matthews sang Lucia a treat, a role she has now made her own. But more than this, we had a great baritone, bass and tenor, plus two comprimarios, making for a fabulous sextet, one of the half dozen or so ‘immortal moments’ of this very great work.
Starting with the difficult harp solo in Act I (virtuosically performed here), we might count into immortality the fountain aria (which the harp introduces); Lucia/Edgardo duet; Lucia yielding to Enrico and Raimondo; wedding scene, culminating in the celebrated sextet; post-wedding party, interrupted by Lucia’s famous mad scene and magnificent final cemetery scene of the tenor. Few operas have so many high points.
Baritone Giorgio Caoduro was our Barber of Seville last year and he did not disappoint on this occasion in an even more challenging role. Vocally this was highly satisfying, starting with some electrifying baritone singing in the opening scene, angry at his sister’s reported romance with the young squire next door. Caoduro sang some optional high notes, using great skill, technique and good taste to deliver a glorious aria and cabaletta (no second verse to the latter in Act I).
I had heard American tenor James Valenti as Alfredo at the Metropolitan Opera two years ago. Again here, he acquitted himself with great panache and we were privileged to hear such a talented and beautiful artist. His tomb scene was very fine indeed. He too took most of the difficult and exciting options and also acted well.
Richard Anderson sang superbly as the tutor/priest although he was slightly under-powered compared with the others. Andrew Brunsdon sang a stately and formal Arturo while Teresa La Rocca played a fine Alisa, Lucia’s maid and confidente.
In this production the ‘wolf crag’ scene was omitted, an unforgivable sin in my catechism. It contains an all-time great dramatic male duet which is hard to beat. Caoduro and Valenti would have shone in this glorious showpiece of opera … and furthermore another generation of opera-goers would have experienced this classical gem of drama and vocalism. Even further pruning of the original occurred in the middle of the mad scene, all aimed, I imagine, at avoiding overtime in the orchestra. Yet this company aspires to perform Wagner’s Ring operas!
It is hard to explain why Australian maestro Richard Bonynge is not conducting this Lucia. He is in Sydney at present and has said that he would like more conducting work here. Again the company has let down its audience and overlooked the pre-eminent world specialist who in this case comes from Sydney. This is in no way disrespectful of Christian Badea who conducted superbly, even when faced with the appalling dilemma (see below) of a jammed opening curtain! And the orchestra received a rapturous and well deserved ovation at the start of Act III.
Sadly there were hundreds of empty seats in the house, something which is a sad testament to the poor management and marketing of the national opera company over almost a decade now. There were also dozens of complimentary audience members (they now have their own VIP box office window with two clerks!). The company’s administration has gone from a couple of busy souls when the opera house opened to dozens and dozens of essential functionaries, all with offices, salaries and sometimes free tickets to boot. Gilbert and Sullivan could have written a comic opera on the matter if it weren’t such a tragedy of errors, egos and ignorance.
It will be difficult for the public to find out that this particular opera production is an exception to the usual tawdry quality opera in Sydney. Last week’s Madama Butterfly was a good example of what happens when fine but second rung artists are used in the absence of international quality talent (I only saw the first half). It is pointless bringing in promising young artists from overseas when we have plenty of them in Australia needing encouragement and nurturing. The lady singing Cio-cio-san was adequate, as was the (Australian) tenor singing Pinkerton. Michael Lewis’s replacement was passable yet there was nothing to set the performance apart as more than an also-ran re-run of this Puccini classic (rather ‘over-exposed’ by the company of late). Casual glances at the CV lists showed one singer cites a minor G&S role while another was with the ‘National Opera of New York’ a company which, if it exists at all, is rather obscure. A school performance of Madama Butterfly could be just as thrilling, but would not cost up to $300 per seat. No wonder subscriptions are waning.
To my way of thinking this monochrome Lucia production was odd without any clear unifying theme apart from dark clouds galore. I hope that between the Houston Grand Opera and La Fenice not too much was spent on it. There was no furniture, no staircases, no castle themes and the like to put us in a particular century, yet the costumes were mostly and traditional and elegant. This production got just about everything wrong, starting with the full width set-back painted flat of thick, dark clouds in place of a curtain. It was evidently designed to be able to be raised, lowered, moved sideways and even ‘tilted’ in the last act …requiring enormous structural strength and careful engineering.
Something happened on opening night whereby this ‘wall of clouds’ stayed put during and after the overture (at least the first time it was played). Following the first few aborted lines of the invisible chorus the conductor stopped the orchestra and walked off, something I have never seen in the theatre before. He did not have much choice since the enormous flat had either jammed or the flymen had failed to raise it on time - so the performance ground to a halt. After an announcement to ‘stay in your seats’ the flat was slowly winched up, perhaps by hand, and the performance re-started after about five minutes. This is live theatre, but one wonders about the benefits of a concert performance which has no distractions from poor sets, costumes and stage movements.
Due to this debacle it was hard for us to determine what was intended and what was contingency due to the fault. There was much raising and lowering of this and other painted flats, mostly to no particular purpose as cast members went below, around and behind them. Two huge inverted grey triangles were lowered during the fountain scene, again, for no obvious reason, except for Normanno to stand behind briefly. There was no fountain, needless to say, on the bare, grey stage. I heard from an insider later that the production was meant to emphasise the isolation of the characters, something that eluded this viewer.
When the opera re-started we had the spectre of Normanno, played by Jonathan Abernathy, standing stock still centre-stage glaring out at the audience. This character was used throughout the opera like Dr Grenvil in the recent ‘clock’ La Traviata. Clever or stupid, take your pick. The idea did not distract - and it does come from the libretto (a line in the middle of the mad scene - which I think may have been omitted in this production [sic]). I cannot abide the innumerable inane chorus movements which were more like a military tattoo than Scottish clans-people meeting, greeting and partying. During important vocalism there was often a distracting backdrop of goose-stepping, befrocked chorus women and stick holding men.
Some of the vocal high points were sung far on the sides of the stage with the singers hidden from some side seats. The height of the production’s inappropriateness came with the mad scene. Vocally it was a delight with Ms Matthews at the peak of her powers … even adding some tasteful coloratura ornamentation of her own (or more likely from Richard Bonynge). However, the director had her spending almost the whole scene trying to wipe away the blood, like Lady Macbeth (“Out damned spot”). Lucia’s situation is the very opposite of the Scottish play: Lucia is totally oblivious to the blood which is not even mentioned in the aria whose words are pure folly, largely the fantasy of a continuing relationship with her ‘real’ beloved. For some reason the font used on the subtitles was half sized and I found it difficult to read.
Tell your friends, despite all these draw-backs, this Lucia di Lammermoor is still worth a visit to the opera house for its short season! See the company’s web site for dates and booking details. I would recommend the end stalls seats which are around $100 each, great value even for those paying with depreciated foreign currencies like US dollars, pounds or Euros.
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..
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