Donizetti composed his operas at a frantic pace, at the rate of five a year and around 70 in all. His L’Elisir d’Amore had been composed in a couple of weeks. He is said to have composed Don Pasquale in eight days, or at any rate in less than a month. It took rather longer to bring Lucia di Lammermoor to the stage – about four months – but that was mainly because the theatre in Naples, the San Carlo, was virtually bankrupt. The Lucia, the ‘incomparable’ Fanny Persiani, one of the greatest sopranos, refuse to rehearse until paid; and Donizetti himself almost went on strike.
The premiere of Lucia di Lammermoor was on 26 September 1835. Donizetti had composed the music as fast as his librettist, Salvatore Cammarano, the official ‘poet’ at the San Carlo, could write the words. Donizetti had begun work during the previous June. The score was finished on 6 July, but it was not until 20 August that it was finally accepted by the management.
Lucia di Lammermoor is the ‘archetype of Italian Romantic opera’, and it might almost be regarded as an absurd parody, if it were not for the extraordinarily effective and dramatic Mad Scene, in particular.
The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott, who had very recently died and whose novels were still the rage at the time, was used as a basis, although not in much more than outline. This was not the first time Scott’s story had been used: around six years earlier Paris had first seen a version of the story in an opera by a composer in the second division, Michele Carafa. Even before that, there had been a version in Denmark, in which the fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen was involved.
As the story of Romeo and Juliet, the lovers come from different sides of warring factions. Scott based his tale on an incident in the life of a top lawyer in Scotland, Lord Stair, from the Dalrymple family. His daughter had pledged herself to marry someone other than the person her family forced her to marry. She stabbed the bridegroom and was discovered, as Scott wrote, “dabbled in gore”.
Lucia was a great success. In Paris, one commentator reported that “it is a miracle; Donizetti has succeeded in electrifying the dead”. It became one of the most universally popular operas of the 19th century. Great novelists have used it to colour dramatic moments in their works. It arises in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary when she is at the opera with her dull husband, and her former lover returns into her life. It features in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina when the heroine, a fallen woman, caused a sensation and was snubbed at the opera house. E.M. Forster chooses Lucia di Lammermoor as the opera the English people see in Where Angels Fear to Thread. The opera signifies the intrusion of foreigners into Italy: a Scottish story set to music by an Italian. The Italians in the audience take the story into their hearts, reacting freely and enthusiastically. In contrast, the English — themselves foreigners in Italy — bring their own attitudes and prejudices to the opera as they have brought them to Italy in general.
In one of the great contradictions of the opera world, the Scottish set production is sung in Italian with English surtitles.
In England it was also a sensation and, although expensive to stage, it became a great standby. It was beloved of audiences but less acclaimed by critics. Indeed, it became sufficiently hackneyed that the playwright and critic Bernard Shaw became utterly fed up with it. He suggested that it needed some element of comic relief, such as a “highlander with a fling and a burlesque chorus to liven the precepts of Raimondo”. Earlier a leading critic in London had taken a dim view: “Never was a story so full of suggestion for music tamed into such insipid nothingness, even by an Italian librettist, as this.”
The title role has attracted an unending succession of high sopranos. Lucia is a role that makes huge demands on a soprano’s stamina: she has to retain enough energy through the demands of Acts I and II in order to carry off Act III’s famous Mad Scene – a breathtaking display containing a stratospheric virtuoso cadenza accompanied by glass harmonica. In the 20th century, Joan Sutherland was perhaps the most famous exponent: her ability to sing her Mad Scene while running among the wedding guests greatly enhanced the effectiveness. Sutherland’s sensational opening night performance in Zeffirelli’s 1959 Covent Garden production of Lucia made her a star.
And he who sings Edgardo knows that he has the final scene, “the darling of tenor singers”, almost entirely to himself. Pavarotti, aged twelve, was inspired by Gigli singing Edgardo. And later, with Sutherland’s help, he himself made his American debut in 1965 in the role, filling in for another tenor who had cancelled at the last minute. Three years earlier, Domingo had made his American debut in the role of the unfortunate Arturo, and later went on to sing Edgardo opposite Lily Pons (who had sung opposite Gigli thirty years before that!) and, of course, opposite Sutherland.
Whatever view one takes about the quality of the music, there is no doubting that Lucia can be great entertainment, a truly great show. It requires a star ‘coloratura’ performance from the soprano and an excellent production. Lucia’s nuptial nightie needs to be suitably “dabbed in gore” and the baronial hall, the fountain and the Wolf’s Crag suitably “gothick”. Oh, and the kilts need to be of suitable tartan.
Donizetti composed during the era of the coloratura soprano who, “with great ability and a high range, is able to warble rapidly and neatly in the most acrobatic fashion.” The melody is elaborately decorated, with runs, trills and arpeggios, much of it at the top range (tessitura) of the voice.
Another expression that is sometimes applied to Donizetti’s music, and even more to that of Bellini, is bel canto, meaning ‘beautiful voice’ or ‘beautiful singing’, connoting long, lyrical lines of melody. As with coloratura, pigeon-hole terms such as this can be confusing, because bel canto is a phrase which we may also find applied to lyrical and florid music of the much earlier baroque period.
In the Italian opera of the early 19th century, the orchestra has a merely supportive role and the human voice reigns supreme. Bellini, the composer of La Sonnambula and Norma (both produced around four years before Lucia), was perhaps the greatest exponent of bel canto, and for a long time it was claimed that he had inspired Donizetti in his composition of Lucia. It has been said that “emotions are created by variations in the melodic line itself – its rhythms, its intervals, its speed, its phrasing and particularly by the shadings and dynamics of the human voice.” However, despite this, the objective much of the time seems to be a glittering vocal display by a celebrity coloratura.
An earlier, well-known example of coloratura is provided by the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, who, after a few top C’s and D’s, should reach top F, although sometimes not altogether successful. The spectacular cadenza in Lucia’s Mad Scene ends on high E flat.
Donizetti is sometimes reported as having said that he wrote Lucia as a monument to Bellini. The claim is improbably because the premiere of Lucia was three days after Bellini’s untimely death in curious circumstances outside Paris. The two composers were actually fiercely competitive: Bellini regarded Donizetti as a musical hack who deliberately sacrificed quality for money while Donizetti accused Bellini of being a musical sponger upon elderly wealthy ladies.
The Bride of Lammermoor was published in 1819. A dramatized version was staged in London less than two weeks after the appearance of the novel. By the time Donizetti came to it, “it was one of the best-known works of fiction in all Western Europe”. A modern marketing professional could probably not have suggested a more eye-catching title for a West End show.
The libretto is a travesty of Scott’s novel, which brims with imagination and humour, especially when characterising the parvenu Ashtons and the aristocratically threadbare Ravenswoods. Scott’s dénouement, from the start of the wedding, takes around a twentieth of his novel, whereas it absorbs a third of the opera. Indeed, the climax and focus of the opera, Lucia’s madness, is disposed of in about fifteen lines. Cammarano, the librettist, finds room to include a hunt and a thunderstorm (both conventional in musical settings), but he bypasses witches, a grave-digger, the appearance of the ghost – all of which were considered possibly too colourful for an art-form where the technicolour is supposed to be provided by the music.
The librettist’s task is far more difficult than it may seem. For Scott, Lucy’s formidable and detestable mother, and her wily father, a lawyer, are the cause of the disastrous events at Lammermoor. Again, they are perhaps too starkly drawn to fit easily into an opera. The character of Lucy, pale and palely drawn, is more convenient: she is a “winsome, sweet creature, soft and flexible, exquisitely beautiful” who has a predictable tendency to tremble of faint.
One can perhaps sympathise with Cammarano having his primo uomo stab himself. Even though the novel foretold that he would ride into the quicksands on the Kelpie’s Flow, such an end would have been considerably more difficult to stage.
Mad scenes were fashionable in Donizetti’s time and their likes are found in his Anna Bolena, Lucrezia Borgia and Maria Stuarda, and also in Bellini’s Il Pirata, La Sonnambula and I Puritani.
It was quite normal for a soprano to insert an elaborate coloratura cadenza at the end of any great aria. So one should not be surprised that Donizetti did not compose the formidably demanding cadenza in which Lucia echoes the flute. Some say it was created by Teresa Brambilla (1813-1895), the first Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto. Another view is that it was composed by Mathilde Marchesi for Nellie Melba’s 1889 performance at the Opera Garnier in Paris. In the last hundred years, it has been the highlight of the opera.
The vocal line in the Mad Scene runs the risk of sounding merely like an acrobatic display of technical brilliance. As Sutherland’s biographer described it, “There is the crooning softness of the feebleminded; the shrinking fear of the hallucinated; the joyous rapture of the deluded – but no strident madness.” In the Zeffirelli production with Sutherland in February 1959, instead of the music just being a soprano echoing the flute in the pit, the music was presented as “distracting sounds that Lucia imagined she heard and, having imagined, repeated .. notes that existed only in a destroyed mind.”
Donizetti employed a rare instrument to accompany Lucia through her delusional Mad Scene: the glass harmonica, first popularised by the Irish musician Richard Pockrich in the 1740s. Gluck played a similar instrument and Handel, Mozart, Beethoven and Richard Strauss composed for it. But Donizetti’s use of the glass harmonica is virtually unique in opera. Significantly, the device was alleged (without scientific proof) to cause madness in those exposed to it, both musicians and audiences. This may have first prompted Donizetti to associate Lucia’s madness with the glass harmonica, as well as to subsequently withdraw it and allot its extensive cadenzas to the flute.
Lucia’s Mad Scene does not conclude the opera. This either annoys the soprano (as it did Fanny Persiani), because the Edgardo in the final scene gets the final applause, or it provides an anticlimax to the opera because the tenor is no match for her.
Lucia has been described as “Donizetti’s finest work”, “it’s composer’s masterpiece”.
Many would disagree with this view on the quality of the music, including his contemporary Bellini. However, Berlioz, who took a dim view of Italian opera generally, with its gay and brilliant music that was often inappropriate to the circumstances, makes an exception for Lucia, in which he admired the pathos in the Act 2 sextet Chi mi frena in tal momento, and the final scene of the opera.
The sextet was rapturously applauded at the opera’s premiere, went on to influence such composers as Verdi and was one of the first ever opera ensembles to be recorded. Its fame is easy to understand: the sextet, and its ensuing finale, are archetypal examples of beautiful, complex music used at a crucial dramatic turning point.
Lucia’s brother Enrico is horrified to learn she has fallen in love with his sworn enemy Edgardo. Enrico tricks Lucia into believing that Edgardo has been unfaithful and hastily arranges her marriage to his associate Arturo. The moment Lucia signs the wedding contract she feels a terrible foreboding, highlighted by dramatic orchestral tremolos. She is right to do so – seconds later, Edgardo bursts in, interrupting the wedding party and briefly shocking everyone into silence.
Lucia murders Arturo in their wedding bed. His death is followed first by Lucia’s, and then by Edgardo’s.
The sextet opens with a duet between Edgardo and Enrico, in which Edgardo expresses pity and enduring love for Lucia, and Enrico expresses remorse for his treachery. The men’s closely linked vocal lines show how, for the first time, these two enemies are united in compassion. Lucia then takes up the melody, shadowed by the chaplain Raimondo. Lucia is too unhappy even to weep; Raimondo fears an evil end to the day, and pities her. Meanwhile, Edgardo and Enrico reiterate their feelings in short asides. The sextet grows richer in texture and the range of emotions expand as we discover each character’s reaction to the shocking event.
The textures become richer still as the chorus join in (doubled by Arturo and Lucia’s companion Alisa – in terms of solo lines the sextet is really a quartet), expressing fear and pity for Lucia. As the emotional temperature rises, Lucia’s increasingly broken phrases and anguished repeated high notes show her deepening distress. This heightens still further in the sextet’s closing bars as – following a short unaccompanied passage for her still-remorseful brother and lover – she soars to her highest note in the sextet, closing the ensemble in a mood of profound despair.
In the ensuing section – a bridge between the sextet and the finale – the male characters’ energy and purpose returns, with steady figures in the strings providing a sense of constant momentum. Arturo and Enrico square up to their old enemy Edgardo, who vows not to leave without a struggle. Raimondo breaks in, reminding everyone to slow, majestic chords that ‘God abhors murderers’. He shows Edgardo Lucia’s wedding contract. With cold dignity, Edgardo asks Lucia if she signed it. Lucia quietly answers ‘yes’. In a dramatic unaccompanied phrase, Edgardo declares that Lucia has betrayed both Heaven and love.
The musical tension rises almost unbearably in the ensuing rapid finale. Edgardo repeatedly curses Lucia in a high-lying, declamatory line; she can only respond with a wordless cry to his furious “May God destroy you!”. The chorus, Enrico, Raimondo and Arturo launch into the stretta (rapid concluding passage, here in the rhythm of a fiery tarantella), repeatedly ordering Edgardo to leave. In a poignant aside, Lucia and Edgardo sing lyrically in unison, Lucia praying for Edgardo’s safety, Edgardo longing for death. Their lamentations soar above the chorus’s furious denunciations as the finale speeds to its frantic end, closing with a final high-pitched cry of anguish from Lucia.
Lucia di Lammermoor’s Act II sextet and finale is both the most musically complex section of the opera, and a moving and convincing depiction of a range of passionate emotions. It is also the opera’s dramatic lynchpin. Everything that happens in Act III – Arturo’s murder, Lucia’s collapse and subsequent death and Edgardo’s suicide – are a direct result of this scene’s action.
WA Opera has bought the set and costumes of John Copley’s 1980 production of Lucia di Lammermoor from Opera Australia and dusted off the production as part of their Fiftieth Anniversary season in a nod to Joan Sutherland, the company’s first patron. There are benefits and disadvantages to reviving a much-loved museum piece. The castle set is rich with detail but requires lengthy set changes (an entirely manual undertaking at WA Opera), while the costumes are lavish but outdated and unflattering. Although the kilts are made of suitable tartan!