Why is Australia’s so-called cultural capital only getting its first mainstage opera production for the year in May?

Victorian Opera offered an operetta, the excellent Candide, and Melbourne Opera a small-scale Marriage of Figaro to showcase emerging artists. But local opera lovers are crying out for something more substantial, and Melbourne Opera delivers in its financially modest but creatively inventive and honest way with a new production of Lucia di Lammermoor.

As always, director Suzanne Chaundy tells a story with clarity and engaging drama. The fine cast includes Elena Xanthoudakis, making a welcome return to her homeland and Melbourne Opera as Donizetti’s ‘mad bride’.

Elena Xanthoudakis in Melbourne Opera’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Photo © Robin Halls

Premiering in Naples in 1835, Lucia di Lammermoor was adapted from Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Bride of Lammermoor. The tale’s Scottish star-crossed lovers are the title character and Edgardo, a nobleman from a rival family.

Lucia’s brother, Enrico, already troubled about his family’s misfortune, is enraged by her secret trysts with Edgardo. He forces his sister into a politically advantageous marriage but, mad with grief, she murders her husband on their wedding night.

The star of Melbourne Opera productions such as Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena, Xanthoudakis once again reveals her bright, agile soprano. Coloratura runs, leaps and trills are pleasingly executed, and her vocal expressiveness and acting, especially in the long ‘mad’ scene, give her Lucia authenticity.

The role has been sung by others with more spectacular technique, but Xanthoudakis, together with Chaundy and other cast members, make this character a believable victim of coercive control.

Simon Meadows has established himself as one of Australia’s best baritones in recent years, including in Melbourne Opera’s Ring Cycle. As Enrico, his voice is deliciously warm, confident and so powerful it sometimes threatens to overwhelm in the compact Athenaeum Theatre. Meadows’s performance conveys the character’s barely contained rage, including with facial expressions that, together with his hairless dome, brought cinema villain Voldemort to my mind.

Tenor Henry Choo is a fine Edgardo, whether in love, anger or despair. The latter emotion fuels his big scene at opera’s end, ultimately so much so that some imperfect singing is dramatically just right. As cleric Raimondo, Eddie Muliaumaseali’i’s is by turns stern and concerned, his bass rich and assured especially in an emotionally charged Act II aria.

Some of this production’s most musically satisfying moments are duets, particularly Meadows and Choo’s Act III confrontation. The supporting cast, including the Melbourne Opera Chorus, are always solid.

Melbourne Opera’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Photo © Robin Halls

Under the baton of Raymond Lawrence, the small Melbourne Opera Orchestra generates remarkable volume in forte passages (overwhelmingly so at first), but can sound thin in quieter ones. While an early oboe solo is a bit wobbly, later harp and flute solos charm the ear.

The production’s mid-19th century Scottish setting is neatly evoked by Harriet Oxley’s costumes: large coats, dignified suits and floating crinolines in restrained hues, including the occasional splash of tartan.

The defining feature of Dale Ferguson’s minimal set is an oval of negative space mid-stage, reminiscent of old miniature portrait frames. It frames the action in front, enables dramatic entrances and exits, and makes humble backdrops effective scene-setters, from supersized antique sepia drawings to a glimpse of the stage’s original old stone wall.

The set’s simplicity mostly veils Melbourne Opera’s non-government-funded budget challenges, except for Act I’s sad approximation of a fountain – a rare example of Chaundy’s signature respect for librettos being unwelcome.

For the most part her attention to detail enhances this Lucia di Lammermoor, particularly in terms of story and characterisation through fleeting performance elements. Arturo’s dissatisfaction with the wine, for example, which is part of Robert Macfarlane’s nice little sketch in self-importance.

It’s not a major production, with breathtaking voices, a large orchestra and grand design, but Melbourne’s opera lovers will appreciate this strangely rare chance to enjoy a classic (or any opera for that matter). This quality, accessible production also gives locals with limited experience of the artform a chance to understand why it has endured for centuries.

Melbourne Opera’s Lucia di Lammermoor is at the Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne until 18 May.

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