What's a girl to do? In Sir Walter Scott's 1819 historical novel The Bride of Lammermoor Lucy Ashton is engaged to her true love Edgar, but is tricked by her family into marrying another for his wealth. Even before Edgar turns up on the eve of the wedding, we can tell she's in for a really bad night. And when librettist Salvatore Cammarano adapted Scott's fact-inspired fiction in 1835 for the reigning king of Italian opera Gaetano Donizetti, he only made it worse for poor Lucia: in the honeymoon suite he has her stab her unloved husband to death, while the party is still going on outside. What can she possibly do now?
This being opera, what she does is, of course, come out and sing. In a rhapsodic and ultimately stratospheric aria she articulates the delusion that she can hear the sweet sound ('Il dolce suono') of Edgardo's voice. This "mad scene," where she morphs into a mish-mash of Lady Macbeth, Ophelia and Juliet, is one of the most famous and difficult in the repertoire: it has made the reputation of many sopranos, including Joan Sutherland at the Royal Opera House in 1959. Without this money shot, Donizetti's Scottish tragedy would probably have fallen into the same obscurity as his Emilia di Liverpool, instead of running a close second to his most popular work, L'elisir d'amore.
In Opera Australia's new production the mad scene is so well conceived and executed that it bewildered even the Sydney opening night audience largely familiar with the music, though they recovered during the final scene where Edgardo stabs himself dead to give her a well deserved standing ovation. It's not just that OA principal artist Emma Matthews sings with technical precision, heartfelt emotion and spectacular ornamentation: as an actor she is also a crystal clear instrument for the admirable work of the British creative team. Director John Doyle kept the costumes in the early 18th century and dropped the customary moor, castle and staircase in favour of Liz Ascroft's largely abstract set, where the most noticeable feature is merely a wisp of fog blowing across a vast cloudy sky. Mood is created without distraction from anything but Lucia's suffering. When she appears from the bedroom in a white nightdress stained in a red pubic delta, the incongruity of her cheery lark-like song against the glistening blood she strews from a silver ice bucket onto the costumes of a wincing chorus is deeply unsettling. Donizetti's original orchestration of this scene used the alien sound of the glass harmonica, and although he subsequently rearranged it for the more comfortable, familiar, and widely available flute, the voice-like wails of that almost-extinct instrument, here synthesised on an electronic keyboard, make the disorientation even more intense. These five minutes are like a trip to another world.
The two male leads have recently become hot properties at the top opera houses of the world, and in these very demanding roles it's easy to hear and see why: James Valenti looks and sounds the perfect Edgardo, and Giorgio Cauduro seems always able to deliver effortlessly and fluently everything that a bel canto composer could ever have wanted.
In this co-production with Venice and Houston, a world-class team of artists has deftly exhumed from the mausoleum of cliché the truly frightening skeleton at its core, and the orchestra, chorus and seven soloists made it dance. Fans of grand opera will be in heaven from the singing alone, and everyone will be amazed by the depth of this production's excursion into Lucia's personal hell.