For many opera fans, especially here in Australia, the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor is indelibly connected with the late, much lamented Joan Sutherland. She made her breakthrough as Lucia in a Covent Garden production of 1959, and continued to sing the part for over three decades, thankfully leaving several celebrated recordings. All eyes and ears were therefore on Emma Matthews on Friday night, as she took on the role in a new production of Donizetti’s masterpiece at the Sydney Opera House. Matthews is a hugely accomplished soprano in her own right, with a string of Helpmann Awards to her name, the most recent of which was for Violetta in the “opera on the harbour” production of La Traviata earlier this year. Moreover, her pedigree for this particular role was impeccable, having been mentored by the conductor Richard Bonynge (aka Mr. Joan Sutherland) as well as by La Stupenda herself. In the event, her performance was a triumph – the celebrated mad scene in Act III was one of the most thrilling, and certainly the bloodiest that I have yet witnessed.

The entry of the heroine in this scene is prepared by Raimondo (the excellent Richard Anderson), but the sight of Matthews in a white nightgown covered in blood was still shocking. If nothing else, the areas of staining suggested that not all of the gore necessarily came from her slain groom, Arturo: in fact, the visuals vividly recalled a scene from Richard Mill’s The Love of the Nightingale, produced by Opera Australia last year, in which the same singer plays Philomele, who is raped and mutilated by her brother-in-law. The sound of the glass harmonica, a rare instrument specified in the score but often substituted, intensified the unsettling atmosphere. What was remarkable about Matthews’ performance in this scene was her activity: she mounted the table, she cowered under it, she smeared herself and the cast with blood, all the while singing divinely. The tablecloth which she gripped in her frenzy was at one point cradled to her like baby, just as earlier in her delusion she had imagined consummating her marriage to Edgardo. This was no droopy languishing heroine, but rather a maniacally deranged woman: one could understand why at one point the chorus notably recoiled as she moved towards them. The celebrated cadenza differed in places from the standard version, but still required the flute and soprano to coordinate their runs in thirds and sixths immaculately.

Matthews’ costumes were the one note of colour in a production which deliberately emphasised muted palettes and shades of grey (akin to the famous tinting of the “girl with the red coat” in the black-and-white Schindler’s List.) The design was credited as a co-production with Houston Grand Opera and Venice’s Teatro La Fenice, and made use of dark cloud formations as a backdrop, recalling Turner’s evocative skyscapes. This did capture a certain grim Scottishness, but in combination with the extreme minimalism of the sets, left me feeling rather visually underwhelmed. Certain aspects of the production were dramatically puzzling, such as the decision to lower one of the screens gradually during Enrico’s opening aria (delivered with gusto by Giorgio Cauduro), stopping it so that the legs of the chorus were still visible. The chorus members were required to make slow processional walks at various places: was this the best way of combatting the static formations that so often occur in Italian opera?

The orchestra under Christian Badea were in fine form, so it was no hardship to hear the prelude played twice, necessitated, or so it seemed, by technical difficulties with raising the screen. The second time around, we watched Normanno (Jonathan Abernethy) slowly turn around and walk downstage towards us, a not-terribly convincing sequence which was repeated at the beginning of the second scene. He remained a louring presence on stage throughout the exchanges between Lucia and her maid, dramatic licence that allowed us understand how Enrico was so well-informed about his sister’s love affair. Aside from the heroine, there were plenty of other fine performances. James Valenti looked every inch the part as the romantic lover, Edgardo, and demonstrated a fine if somewhat unvarying timbre. Giorgio Caoduro, as Lucia’s tyrannical brother Enrico, showed agility and possesses a ringing high G of which he is justifiably proud. Richard Anderson as the clergyman Raimondo provided a thoughtful, dramatically effective rendition, and Andrew Brundson (as the unlucky groom, Arturo) and Teresa La Rocca (as Lucia’s maid, Alisa) both did well in their smaller roles. The chorus sang effectively, but presumably were under instruction not to react visually to the dramatic events: a plausible “distancing” idea, but in practice the detachment came across as disinterest.