When Richard Mills told Opera Queensland’s Artistic Director Patrick Nolan to trademark Brisbane Bel Canto a few years ago, he told him the entire city would fall in love with the Italian tradition of singing.

Judging by the thunderous standing ovation that greeted the opening night of OQ’s Lucia di Lammermoor, he was right.

Jessica Pratt in Opera Queensland’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Photo © Murray Summerville

With Mills conducting and Nolan as director, this production starring Jessica Pratt brought Donizetti’s masterpiece to life, transforming the QPAC Concert Hall into a fine approximation of the classic European opera house.

In fact, its yawning moat-like pit is probably the closest this country has to the one at La Scala, where Pratt is only the third Australian to have sung the title role after Nellie Melba and Joan Sutherland.

Mills conducted Pratt’s first Australian performance as Lucia in 2016 with the Victorian Opera, and their camaraderie is evident as he literally sings her cues to her from the pit.

It is also delightful to hear him occasionally singing along with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, the principals and the chorus, guiding and shaping their dynamics to his will with dramatic effect.

It is rare to be able to commend an entire company with one blanket statement, but Saturday night’s performance featured the most uniformly superb singing this writer has heard in a long, long time.

Carlos Bárcenas and Jessica Pratt in Opera Queensland’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Photo © Steph Do Rozario

From Jessica Pratt in the title role to Samuel Dundas as her cad of a brother Enrico, David Parkin as the chaplain and Carlos Bárcenas as Lucia’s true love Edgardo, it is hard to imagine better performances, vocally or dramatically.

If a note can be said to have a bullseye, they hit it every time. An impressive feat that is hard to come by across an entire company.

One forgives Bárcenas the one note that failed to carry; phlegm is an unfortunate occupational hazard. Nevertheless, he rose to the occasion a few bars later and proved his mettle, delivering the same note loud and clear.

The incredibly high standard set by the principal singers is also met by the performers in smaller roles.

Hayley Sugars made the most of her role as Lucia’s suitably concerned handmaid and confidante Alisa.

As Normanno, Iain Henderson gives a spot-on portrayal of the conniving captain of the guard who aides Enrico in forcing Lucia’s marriage to Arturo, performed here by Virgilio Marino.

This writer was fortunate enough to see Marino jump in as the Duke of Mantua in Opera Australia’s 2023 season of Rigoletto, and it’s wonderful to see him in this exceptional lineup of performers.

Samuel Dundas in in Opera Queensland’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Photo © Steph Do Rozario

The OQ Chorus rounds out the vocal forces on stage and is primed to perfection by Chorus Master Narelle French. It should be noted that French has the distinction of being the only person to have surtitled both Joan Sutherland as Lucia at the Sydney Opera House in 1986 and now Jessica Pratt.

In what has become something of a house style at OQ under Nolan, the surtitles are projected onto the back wall behind the performers, ensuring that not a moment of Salvatore Cammarano’s brilliantly crafted libretto is lost.

Cammarano captures the nuanced character traits of Sir Walter Scott’s original novel The Bride of Lammermoor, and gems like “Your mother would turn in her grave” are all too easily missed when one is forced to constantly look up and down from the stage to a small screen above, and back again.

Such gems are vital if the audience is to go on this rollercoaster ride of emotions. We have to laugh at the absurdity of her brother’s emotional blackmail and swoon at Lucia’s secret engagement to Edgardo if we are to then plummet into the dark abyss with her.

And we do.

As Lucia appears behind Raimondo and the assembled wedding guests, her pristine white wedding veil shimmers in the light. It is only when the chorus parts that we finally see Arturo’s blood spattered on her nightdress.

David Parkin in Opera Queensland’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Photo © Steph Do Rozario

Nolan’s choice of understated horror is far more suited to Pratt’s performance than the Grand Guignol of John Doyle’s Lucia for Opera Australia in 2018, which had her looking more like Carrie by the end.

Pratt’s mad scene (Il dolce suono) is a white-knuckle masterclass in acting, as she goes from believing she is to be married to Edgardo to falling to her knees and tenderly holding her veil like a mother does her newborn baby, clinging onto a life and love she can never have.

And then there is the childlike playfulness of her duet with the flute in the aria’s final moments, the obligato played to a tee by QSO Principal Flautist Alison Mitchell. This tangential moment belies Lucia’s murderous rage, resulting in a disconnect that has us on the edge of our seats.

It’s heartbreakingly honest and unsettling, yet despite the authenticity Pratt affords Lucia’s delusional state, she never loses sight of the musical fireworks one expects.

As in her Act One aria, Regnava nel silenzio, her voice is crystal clear, her intonation in the cadenzas is effortless, her diaphanous pianissimo adds nuance and the ornamentation during the goosebump-inducing coloratura passages is entirely her own.

In true diva style, Pratt even imbues her performance with a touch of the old ‘will she or won’t she’ suspense. Of course, she nails all her stratospheric notes, but they are delivered in character, some with a touch of frailty to reflect Lucia’s waning strength before she collapses.

Hayley Sugars in Opera Queensland’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Photo © Billie Wilson-Coffey

Pratt is wholly consumed by the role, even during the blackouts.

The lack of a front curtain in QPAC’s concert hall means we see her rise from the floor, however she does so like a deer caught in the headlights, cowering at Parkin’s Raimondo who leads her offstage in the half light.

It’s a stroke of genius on Nolan’s part, practical and dramatically satisfying at the same time.

Modestly described as a ‘semi-staged’ production, Nolan’s staging is anything but.

Yes, it’s minimalist, but many other productions have gone down that path and offered much less.

Nolan’s own unit set design comprises towering mahogany walls which succeeded in conveying the austerity of Lammermoor Castle in the Scottish hills, their oppressiveness underlining Lucia’s plight.

One tiny door allows her to seek refuge away from the prying eyes of the ghostly courtiers, her brother and his aides, all of whom are resplendent in Karen Cochet and Bianca Bulley’s costumes – their ruffs and sculptural contours showcasing seamwork that would have done Vivienne Westwood proud.

Samuel Dundas and Jessica Pratt in Opera Queensland’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Photo © Murray Summerville

It’s all impeccably brought to life by lighting designer Christine Felmingham, who creates compelling spaces in which the drama unfolds, including an utterly believable fountain for Lucia in Act One.

Felmingham’s expert use of shadow adds to the drama and draws out subtext. Her casting of Parkin’s imposing ‘dictatorial’ silhouette on the wall behind the chorus is a good case in point, underlining his more potent and duplicitous portrayal of Raimondo as he berates them.

It all harks back to Orson Welles’ legendary 1937 production of Julius Caesar at New York’s Mercury Theatre, its risers and astute lighting all that were needed to bring Shakespeare’s text to life.

So, too, Nolan trusts Cammarano’s libretto and works with his company to tell a damn good story.

He wisely allows Pratt enough freedom to bring her signature role to the Brisbane stage for the first time, honing her performance and those of her fellow cast members to create a cohesive world populated by utterly believable and well-rounded  characters.

What’s more, with her Opera Queensland debut, Pratt gets an Australian Lucia to call her own.

After stepping into John Copley’s production for Joan Sutherland in Melbourne and having followed in Emma Matthews’ footsteps when she performed in the OA revival of John Doyle’s staging, Pratt can finally show Australian audiences her Lucia in a production created entirely around her.

One for the ages, it’s not to be missed and definitely worth a trip to Brisbane. And be sure to catch Pratt’s Bellini concert on Wednesday while you’re at it.

Opera Queensland’s Brisbane Bel Canto concludes with a second performance of Lucia di Lammermoor at the QPAC Concert Hall in Brisbane on 27 April.

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