Lucia di Lammermoor and Rigoletto (Sydney Opera House)

There is, as we’ve come to expect in the globalised market of principal opera talent, some world-class voices quaking the tiles of the Sydney Opera House this winter.

Starry seasons of two mid-19th century Italian works, Lucia di Lammermoor and Rigoletto don’t excavate anything opera lovers didn’t know about these works, or indeed these well-worn adaptations of contrasting success. But voluminous voices elevate what is tediously simple (Lucia) and tiresomely familiar (Rigoletto) about the productions.

In Lucia di Lammermoor, an Australian performer makes her house and company debut, remarkably, with a reputation that precedes her. Jessica Pratt floats in rarified air as one of a handful of sopranos around the world coveted by every major opera house, and entrusted with a titanic role that has the potential to make the performer as certifiable as the character.

In fact, Pratt has made the role her own. Melbourne audiences had the chance to see her Lucia in a dusty 2016 Victorian Opera production, but Pratt has never performed under the sails of the Sydney Opera House. The rousing standing ovation on opening night clearly meant something to her.

Lucia’s moment of ecstasy is thrilling — the famed final-act “mad scene” (aria Il dolce suono) where a blood-splattered Lucia (pictured above), fresh from murdering her unwanted hubby, performs a love-sick hallucination conjuring her star-crossed lover. And Pratt is beguiling, her instrument as vivid and supple as we’ve heard on Australian stages. It’s the combination of power and poise in her voice, toying with the score and 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. It presents as a masterclass in bel canto singing.

But the foreplay in Gaetano Donizetti’s near-three-hour work is laboured. More so in this production directed by Scot John Doyle, first seen in 2011, with its sparse design and spotlight on performers alone. Doyle has had great success with this formula elsewhere, renovating musical theatre in Britain and the United States, from Sweeney Todd to The Colour Purple, and elevating performers with laser directorial precision.

That’s harder to do with canonical opera. And with Doyle absent from this production (Roger Press acts as revival director), none of the performers seem able to fill the stage with story. That includes Pratt, who sings considerably better than she acts. She rises to the challenge of the finale, as few performers could, but even then the madness can seem a touch robotic.

Not a lot of heat is generated between Pratt and her Edgardo, the terrific American tenor Michael Fabiano. But he’s more than a match for her vocally. His rich, full-throated tones can thrill as much as Pratt’s. (Diego Torre plays the role on July 27). Italian Giorgio Caoduro takes the baritone role of Enrico and is suitably, if not scene-stealingly, malevolent. In the pit, another Italian Carlo Montanaro summoned a sensitive reading of the score on opening night.

You might call Doyle’s Lucia bloodless, if it wasn’t for all that blood. And for the ear candy delivered by Pratt and Fabiano.

THREE STARS

Rigoletto is a less star-studded affair. But Elijah Moshinsky’s production, a long-time favourite of many (including this critic), is also a much more successful piece of music theatre.

Only four years ago Opera Australia invested in a new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s tragedy, a soberly traditional production directed by Rodger Hodgman. For all its individual merits, it just wasn’t as arresting – not simply in spectacle, but in its intelligent rendering of story – as Moshinsky’s production, which first debuted at the Sydney Opera House way back in 1991.

Opera Australia, for all its faults, knows when to cut its losses. It exorcised a new and largely loathed Tosca a few years back after a single season, and after one run of Hodgman’s Rigoletto it’s returning to what works until they can find a director to create a production as good.

To which I say, good luck. It’s hard to imagine a smarter interpretation.

The giant revolve has us shadowing the tortured hunchback from his lair into the palace and back to his home, a theatrical tracking shot that still manages to excite. Set in a Fellini-esque ‘60s Italy, it’s vividly coloured, smartly choreographed and plays big and small at the right moments. The chorus (chorus master Anthony Hunt leads here and in Lucia) is put to good use, visually as much as aurally, with some lovely comic touches that revival director Hugh Halliday seems to have punched up this go around.

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Like the design, the sublime score is polished up a treat by conductor Renato Palumbo, a Verdi specialist, who has full command of the Opera Australia Orchestra. It’s also been well cast, with a fine roster of international talent.

Dalibor Jenis is Rigoletto, a gift for baritone singers in its dramatic complexity and vocal dimensions. He is wonderfully expressive on both counts, painting the humiliation and grief in full colour. As daughter Gilda, Russian soprano Irina Lungu makes a welcome debut with the company, demonstrating the requisite coloratura agility in her voice but also finding the virginal innocence of the character that is often missing when played by mid-career artists. Later in the run, Jessica Nuccio (August 4-14) and Kristina Mkhitaryan (August 17-24) take on the role. Gianluca Terranova was a swashbuckling duke, who delivered the third-act show-stopper La donna è mobile with riotous swagger. (Atalla Ayan has that role from August 4.)

It’s the perfect toe-dipping show for the opera-curious, wildly entertaining on a level that – one memorable scene and performance aside – never manages to be.

FOUR STARS

PHOTOS BY PRUDENCE UPTON

Lucia di Lammermoor and Rigoletto play the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until July 27 and August 24 respectively.

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