Lucia di Lammermoor

MO Henry Choo and Elena Xanthoudakis in Lucia di Lammermoor photo by Robin HallsFiercely penetrating and teeming with crest after crest of musical highlights, the dramatic momentum and affecting story making up Donizetti’s bel canto operatic jewel of 1835, Lucia di Lammermoor, is exhilaratingly delivered in a highly polished new production by Melbourne Opera (MO).

The company has staged more than 60 productions over its 21 years, including a courageous and successful Ring Cycle in 2023 – the company’s confidence, professionalism and clear direction feels cemented. This Lucia di Lammermoor demonstrates those qualities in spades.

Put simply, the intensity of Donizetti’s tsunami-like score under conductor Raymond Lawrence and emotional palpability achieved by director Suzanne Chaundy is superbly ignited and decorated with a blazing, highly convincing cast.

At the centre of Salvatore Cammarano’s libretto – loosely based on Sir Walter Scott’s Scottish-set 1819 novella, The Bride of Lammermoor – is a tragedy brought upon a young woman no modern humane society would be proud of.

After the death of her mother, Lucia finds comfort in her love for family rival Edgardo. But Lucia is tricked by her brother Enrico into believing Edgardo has betrayed her and she is forced to marry the wealthy Lord Arturo to advance her brother’s own agenda.

Lucia is played like a pawn by patriarchal entitlement at its ugliest and Chaundy magnifies it exceptionally with blunt, truthful and hair-raising sensibility. Under her wing, the action is noticeably built around cause and effect and its accompanying emotional and expressive spectrum.

The story reaches that climactic moment when Lucia is driven to despair and murder on her wedding night, before facing her guests in a blood-drenched gown, dagger in hand. It’s opera’s most famous mad scene – a beguiling twenty minutes of tormented psychological unravelling to which Australian-Greek soprano Elena Xanthoudakis enacts with aching and utter credibility.

And, while a chorus of men convey the news to Edgardo in the final act that Lucia had lost her ability to reason because of love, no-one should be buying that. Lucia loses her reason because of the of men around her. Religious faith is of no solace or protection either.

Even Edgardo, as besotted as he is with Lucia, doesn’t lend confidence in treating Lucia any differently. At every turn, Lucia is asphyxiated by attitudes and circumstance in the production’s mid-19th century brooding Gothic Revival aesthetic. Chaundy successfully matches it to the idea that today’s world still needs a swift reminder.

Dale Ferguson’s simple, evocative and neatly delineated sets featuring a proscenium-filling lens-like cutout to draw focus, Harriet Oxley’s austere and beautifully tailored costumes bearing hints of tartan use and Peter Amesbury’s brooding lighting attain a visual poetry effortlessly at one with the tragedy.

MO Elena Xanthoudakis in Lucia di Lammermoor photo by Robin HallsFrom the moment she breezed onto the stage in anticipation of her rendezvous with Edgardo, Xanthoudakis looked and sounded certain to take her audience on a magnetic yet heart-breaking journey. Indeed she does so, lustrous and purposeful in voice and relying less on coloratura fireworks while mining soul-bearing depth with remarkable nuance and pathos.

Putting his unfortunate fake beard aside, ardent tenor Henry Choo is impressively passionate and gallant as Edgardo, wearing his heart on his sleeve in the intimacy of love and digging deep to give compelling gravitas to his own disastrous, tear-inducing end.

Enrico’s troubled times and fury at Lucia’s romance have cause for blood vessels set to explode in Simon Meadows portrayal. The anger-stiff stance often seems relentless but Meadows puts his smouldering muscular baritone to heaving, manipulative use to create unsettling tension. And  then comes the heart, too late, in a moving moment of remorse when he falls to his knees and clutches Lucia’s veil as she spins out of control.

Big sonorous bass Eddie Muliaumaseali’i is in top form as the authoritative and incontestable-looking minister Raimondo, offering two stellar highlights that include a riveting rendition singing the horrifying details on finding Lucia at the murder scene.

A measure of flair and pomposity comes with tenor Robert Macfarlane’s shining and clarity-sung Arturo that gives the impression of how incongruous he is in the picture.

Mezzo-soprano Sarah Sweeting is a soaring, luxurious asset and compassionate presence in the smaller role of Lucia’s handmaid, Alisa, and tenor Boyd Owen is dutifully robust alongside Enrico as his retainer, Normanno.

MO Lucia di Lammermoor photo by Robin HallsOpening briskly with a chorus of huntsmen, the voices combine in a rousing display. Later, the full force of the MO Chorus is felt, a commanding contingent who beef up their every tableau with notable detail, none more so than their vigorous sweep onto the stage as the dancing takes off at the wedding celebrations – a credit to their dedication and to Chaundy’s insightful direction.

The orchestral workings in the pit under Maestro Lawrence came together splendidly at Wednesday’s opening night. With a tendency for quick-paced tempi, a markedly thrilling but carefully tempered account resulted. It was evident that the MO Orchestra completely understood their assignment and they played excellently.

If not for MO’s benefactors, local opera would suffer immensely. Their generosity is especially appreciated and vital in providing nourishment to the art form and inspiring ongoing generations.

Perhaps the buzz of a full house greeting MO’s fraught, action-packed and thought-provoking Lucia di Lammermoor will inspire wider generosity. It’s also a no-brainer recommendation for a first-timer so snap up remaining seats for the ride.

Lucia di Lammermoor
Athenaeum Theatre, 188 Collins Street, Melbourne
Performance: Wednesday 8 May 2024
Season continues to 18 May 2024
Information and Bookings:

Image: Henry Choo and Elena Xanthoudakis in Lucia di Lammermoor – photo by Robin Halls | Lucia di Lammermoor – photo by Robin Halls | Elena Xanthoudakis in Lucia di Lammermoor – photo by Robin Halls

Review: Paul Selar