Lucia di Lammermoor review (Her Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne)

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This is Usain Bolt in the Olympic final. Cristiano Ronaldo at the World Cup. The greatest athlete on the biggest stage.

They say nobody in the world sings the maddening title role in Lucia Di Lammermoor — perhaps the most treacherous test composed for a coloratura soprano — better than Jessica Pratt. They used to say the same thing about another Aussie, Joan Sutherland, in the 1960s. Australian divas, it seems, can play crazy better than anywhere else. Pratt has performed the role some 20 times, across Europe and South America, even at La Scala in Milan, opera’s most discerning audience. Now she’s returned home for us to hear her signature role, a coup of operatic proportions for the country’s second-largest company.

The moment of ecstasy is thrilling — the famed final-act “mad scene” (aria Il dolce suono) where a bloodied Lucia stumbles down a grand staircase, fresh from murdering her unwanted hubby, in a love-sick hallucination conjuring her star-crossed lover. Pratt is beguiling, her instrument as vivid as we’ve heard on Australian stages. It’s the combination of power and poise in her voice, toying with the score as much as the audience, drawing you in with a delicate trill and pushing you back in your seat with an unfathomably sustained note of spine-tingling vibrato.

Melbourne audiences saw Emma Matthews in this role a few years ago, and while she was memorably flawless, Pratt brings a virtuosity that feels even more special. Still just 36, she was a spellbinding Violetta in La traviata for Victorian Opera in 2014, but this is the role that has earned endless cries of “brava” across the world. You’ll pay a lot of money to get to Europe or America and hear something this good.

But boy. The foreplay is uncomfortably long in Gaetano Donizetti’s bel canto epic. It’s more lucid than many opera narratives, admittedly, but is tedious in parts too. It feels longer still in this production, with its unimaginative direction and vacant male protagonists.

The problem is not necessarily that director Cameron Menzies delivers an ardently traditional production — though for a company that prides itself on its innovative programming that does seem a discouraging choice — it’s the clockwork nature of the action that robs the piece of any vitality. There’s simply nothing visually arresting about any of it.

The set, first designed by Henry Bardon, certainly impressive in scale and padding the large Her Majesty’s Theatre stage, looks stolen from a fairytale pantomime, expensive and cheap at once. Costumes from Michael Stennett look drawn from the dustier reaches of the wardrobe department. In fact, they were: this design was first put on stage for Dame Joan in the 1970s. That’s just cheap, sorry, not reverent.

The company’s artistic director Richard Mills, at least, wields the baton and successfully modulates Donizetti’s finespun score. In a theatre that now mostly hosts amplified musicals, it’s lovely to experience opera in the sort of acoustical heritage spaces you find in Europe. The large chorus makes a big sound, but their crowding presence borders on awkward thanks to the indelicate direction.

Of the other principals, Columbian-born, Australian-trained Carlos E. Bárcenas plays lover Edgardo, his increasingly sturdy tenor impressing again after an awarded turn in Victorian Opera’s The Flying Dutchman last year. But there’s little heat between him and Pratt. José Carbó is meddling brother Enrico. His vocals certainly range larger than his emotions; more smug than truly villainous. There are nice turns from Jud Arthur as resident chaplain Raimondo and Shakira Tsindos as Lucia’s handmaiden.

When Pratt is off stage — for the greater chunk of the first and third acts — her absence is conspicuous. It’s a Lucia for the ages, in a very aged Lucia.

Lucia di Lammermoor plays Her Majesty’s Theatre on April 14, 16, 19 and 21. Image: Jessica Pratt as Lucia (by Jeff Busby).

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