I don't mean dull. I don't even really mean relaxing, certainly not in the insipid compilation sense. Nor do I mean emptily pretty, the charge too often levelled unjustly at bel canto. Assuming you have a love of beautiful singing — which, if you've gone to Lucia and/or are an Emma Matthews fan, is probably a pretty safe assumption — then there's no way you'd be bored or dissatisfied with this production. Her singing and that of her colleagues is lovely and touching, and the orchestra plays well under the guidance of Mr Lucia himself, Richard Bonynge. However, if it's adventure you want — electrifying vocalism, stimulating direction or an actress who takes risks with this floating, disturbed little girl — you'll need to go elsewhere. This is the safest of all possible Lucias.
John Copley's production has been around forever; or at least, since 1980, when it premiered with Our Joan. It's pretty much as traditional as it gets: huge pillars, a kitschy fountain, lots of tartan, and immense frocks designed to make even the tiniest slip of a girl — Emma, for instance — look like she's packing Joan-sized shoulders. The staging is what you might call basic. People stand and sing and clutch their bosoms, or one another, or both. It's hardly thrilling and pretty easy to mock (I can't believe, for instance, that in twenty-eight years, nobody's had the nerve to drop the hilarious Highland dancing at Lucia's wedding) but it has its charms as well. There's something a bit heartwarming about watching proper old fashioned opera — old fashioned in the best sense. Maria Callas and My Natalie aside, Donizetti didn't actually write an opera intended to explore the dark depths of madness, he wrote a showy singers' vehicle, and I think there's room in the world for both approaches, not to mention plenty of middle ground.
Emma sings Lucia absolutely beautifully. I know that I have a history as the lone voice of dissent when it comes to Emma's performances, but even I can't deny how delightful this particular performance is. Her quick vibrato and girlish sweetness don't always work to her advantage — in Arabella they messed with Strauss' long lines and left her frequently inaudible — but they're perfectly in step with the frills and frippery of this music. There's not a note or cadenza out of place; she takes all the optional high notes and aces them. It's true that hers is a small voice, and I'm not sure how her Lucia would fare in a more cavernous space. Even here, she does disappear somewhat when obliged to compete with other voices or big orchestration — but luckily for her, it's the very nature of bel canto that whenever she has something important to sing, the orchestra draws right back and lets her take priority.
What she isn't, however, is exciting. Engaging, yes, because she sounds so lovely. Characterisation, though, is almost non existent: she doesn't really seem to know how she wants to play Lucia, or even to have much sense of the role's dramatic potential. Until the mad scene, she doesn't really do anything except pout and collapse; I felt like I was watching Emma give a Donizetti concert as herself, rather than a convincing portrayal of Lucia. Not that a convincing portrayal is the only path to a thrilling Lucia. Joanie did it through vivid virtuosity — her Lucia mightn't look the part but vocally she's alive and exciting. Emma hasn't quite the bottomless reserves of Joan. Her range and agility are extraordinary but they operate within definite, albeit impressive, limits. For all her many charms, I can't say I consider Emma a great Lucia. I don't know if she'll ever be one, though I've no doubt she'll grow into the role considerably during this season and beyond. But on her own terms, this is an exquisite performance and I really did love it. So much so that I, the eternal naysayer, surprised myself by standing to applaud her, among a sea of mostly seated people. Yes, I had, and still have my reservations; but she did herself proud and the warmth and happiness she radiated at her curtain call were infectious.
After all that — well and truly the most I've ever written about Emma in a single post — you just know the boys are going to get short shrift. This is grossly unfair, because they were both fantastic.
José Carbo impresses me more with every performance. I swooned for his Escamillo in Dunedin and delighted in the elegant exuberance of his Figaro. He was an excellent Almaviva and his Marcello stole the show. Now he's our unsettlingly charismatic Enrico. Within the staid conventionality of this staging, he actually manages to bring some sense of spontaneity to Enrico's stock gestures and sword brandishing. He uses that big, gorgeous voice of his with intelligence and flair, singing the role so appealingly that I, for one, found it very hard to revile him as much as I know I should.
Eric Cutler is just the right kind of Edgardo for Emma's Lucia —a finely-wrought, lyrical partner rather than an expansive Italian macho man who might shout her down. His singing is bright, fluent and graceful. His stage presence is on the subdued side. Like Emma, he doesn't really come to life until his character's dramatic final scene — in this case, the angst and subsequent suicide of "Tombe degli avi miei". His performance is a delight throughout, but this scene is especially impressive, showing off his sunshine timbre, easy legato and a beautifully controlled upper register. It's tough being the tenor in Lucia, required to wait until after the hugely famous mad scene to sing his own big aria. Eric pulls it off, though, moving out of Emma's shadow to cast an indelible impression of his own. Another major highlight was his fiery dueting with José Carbo in the Wolf's Crag scene — that's some combination.
And there are the rest: Alisa, Raimondo, Normanno, Arturo, the Professor and Mary Ann. Alisa seems to be one of those roles that can be played in any way, by any kind of mezzo. In San Francisco she was young. Here she's an elderly duenna, sung with not much voice but plenty of spirit by Elderly Duenna par excellence Rosemary Gunn. Kanen Breen is in his element as Arturo — after playing it straight as Cassio in Otello, he's now allowed to be preposterously camp again. So camp, actually, that I thought: maybe Edgardo isn't the problem, maybe the marriage fails so messily because Lucia's new husband is, well, just like the Earl of Doncaster. Graeme McFarlane is fine as Normanno. Richard Anderson is a nice, solid Raimondo, but for some reason I was convinced we were getting Jud Arthur in this role. Did I just make this up? Unfortunately the Gilligan's Crag scene has been cut.
In the end I liked this Lucia quite a lot more than I expected I would. I laughed, I smiled, I sighed and I shed not one single tear; I basked in enchanting sounds without the slightest risk of devastation. No, I wouldn't want every Lucia to be like this, but once in a while it's nice to see it this way. I'm even planning to go again.