One of the great Lucias of the current era, Jessica Pratt has played Donizetti’s ill-fated Scotswoman more than 100 times, from her professional debut in 2007, to La Scala and The Met in recent years. How appropriate then, if belatedly, that it’s the role with which she makes her debut at her homeland’s iconic opera house. Pratt lived up to immense expectations, though the outstanding singers interpreting Lucia’s lover and scheming brother were surely factors in her success.

Jessica Pratt (Lucia) and ensemble © Prudence Upton
Jessica Pratt (Lucia) and ensemble
© Prudence Upton

Premiering in Naples in 1835, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor was adapted from Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Bride of Lammermoor. This tale of forbidden love on the Scottish moors centres on the title character and Edgardo, a nobleman from a rival family that has fallen out of political favour. Lucia’s brother, Enrico, is enraged by his sister’s secret trysts with Edgardo, and forces her into a politically advantageous marriage with Arturo. Mad with grief, she murders her husband on their wedding night.

Pratt was a wonder as Lucia. Her soprano has beautiful purity of tone, formidable precision (both in the way each note rings out, and diction undoubtedly enhanced by her long residence in Italy) and compelling expression. From joyous, soaring ornamentation to pianissimo despair, her voice is an emotional roller coaster that leaves one breathless – perhaps literally during opening night’s mad scene, as the audience was sometimes so silent that the normally imperceptible air-conditioning’s hum could just be heard. Although Pratt sometimes held back a fraction, and her middle range flickered slightly a few times (she is still in her 30s, so perfection may be ahead), this was true virtuoso singing.

Jessica Pratt (Lucia) and Michael Fabiano (Edgardo) © Prudence Upton
Jessica Pratt (Lucia) and Michael Fabiano (Edgardo)
© Prudence Upton

She underscored the emotional power of her voice with acting that made a character who is foolish and passive by modern standards into a believable figure. She beamed with girlish love, was grim-faced and physically resistant when bullied, and ultimately stared, wild-eyed, into nothingness. Pratt also fell to the floor with well-practised grace several times, though arguably the director overdoes this trope of helpless grief.

As Edgardo, tenor Michael Fabiano had the passion and vocal power necessary to make the opera’s heightened romance plausible, and also avoid being utterly overshadowed by his leading lady. Far from it: instead of stumbling to its conclusion after the heights of the mad scene, this Lucia continued to soar thanks to Fabiano’s mighty duet with Giorgio Caoduro’s Enrico, and his despairing aria that reveals an Edgardo also mad with grief. There was intense, understated drama about Caoduro’s interpretation of a man whose grip on power is slipping, not least because of the sense of urgency he sometimes brought to his darkly beautiful baritone.

Benjamin Rasheed (Normanno) © Prudence Upton
Benjamin Rasheed (Normanno)
© Prudence Upton

Tenor John Longmuir did a great deal, vocally and dramatically, with the small role of Arturo, and Richard Anderson, whose bass has a pleasantly husky resonance, managed to express both sympathy for Lucia and rigid adherence to Enrico’s agenda as the chaplain, Raimondo. Benjamin Rasheed’s Normanno had little opportunity to do more than skulk about in wordless surveillance of Lucia, but did so with a nice touch of remorse, while Jane Ede was sympathetic as Lucia’s maid, Alisa. The Opera Australia Chorus were in fine voice, and often formed a wall of masculine dominance. Under the baton of Carlo Montanaro, the Opera Australia Orchestra played Donizetti’s atmospheric score briskly – perhaps slightly too briskly at times – and the crucial harp, flute and cello solos were exquisite.

Richard Anderson (Raimondo) and Giorgio Caoduro (Enrico) © Prudence Upton
Richard Anderson (Raimondo) and Giorgio Caoduro (Enrico)
© Prudence Upton

A revival of John Doyle’s production for Opera Australia, Houston Grand Opera and Teatro La Fenice, this Lucia is visually austere. It’s set in 18th-century Scotland, but designer Liz Ascroft eschews colourful tartans in favour of severe grey-black Protestant garb, prettied up with silk and embroidery for the nobility. There are flashes of orange in the costumes of Lucia and her brother, and of course the vivid red blood on her mad-scene nightgown, but essentially this production channels minds toward music and psychology. The minimalist sets are rarely more than heavy screens (often dramatically lit by Jane Cox), which loom low or hang at severe angles against a backdrop of dark clouds.

The cast, particularly the blank-faced chorus, move slowly, heightening the sense of oppression that comes into sharp focus during touches of drama that would be lost in a busier production – Normanno caught sitting in his master’s chair, for example. Another interesting touch is Pratt caressing the rim of a punchbowl (a rare prop, and the only hint of merriment at the wedding “party”). It’s both a visual representation of the mad scene’s high, almost otherworldly notes, and an allusion to the glass harmonica Donizetti originally intended for this scene’s solo.

This is undoubtedly just the first of many appearances with Opera Australia for Jessica Pratt, a coloratura soprano of rare talent and technique, and an unforgettable Lucia di Lammermoor.

*****