Mad, mad Lucy…

10 Nov

“Donizetti’s music is just trash and should be avoided. Every educated person knows this.” And thus began a heated argument between myself and an all-too-proper music major at the University of Georgia’s Music Library back in the late 90s; an incident which led to my being banned of this venerable facility for a full semester due to my animated, banshee-like defense of Italian music in the middle of the listening center. I suppose that, even then, I was not one to keep it down. I am reminded of the incident as the Atlanta Opera’s prepares to open its 2011-2012 with Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” this Saturday.

Gaetano Donizetti

Sadly, this uptight mammal was hardly part of a minority in his attitude towards Donizetti. In fact, my nemesis harked back to the old scholars in his general assessment of Italian music in the mid 18th century, those defenders of musical purity who enjoyed these works under a certain caveat. Even my teen idol, Hector Berlioz, took a big breath before putting down his thoughts on the whole scene: “Music for the Italians is a sensual pleasure and nothing more. They want a score that, like a plate of macaroni, can be assimilated immediately without their having to think about it or even pay any attention to it.” But Donizetti was a student of Simone Mayr, a fine German composer, and the dismissive critical reception to his compositions was, in many cases, unnecessarily harsh.

A remarkably prolific composer, Donizetti wrote over seventy complete operas throughout his lifetime; this feat is more impressive when considering that he barely cleared the age of 50 before his untimely death. Donizetti worked fast and often, and was not shy to take on aggressive deadlines from desperate impresarios coming to him for those pesky last minute substitutions. A rumor (though seriously challenged for years) that he wrote his immortal comedy “L’elisir d’amore” in eight days sums up the velocity with which he could put a score together. Indeed, when told that Rossini had completed the overture to his “Il barbiere di Siviglia” in thirteen days, he reportedly exclaimed: “I always knew Rossini was a lazy man.” As his compositions began to saturate the theaters, Donizetti became one of the most popular composers in Italy, discussed together along the likes of Giovanni Pacini, Vincenzo Bellini, Saverio Mercandate and the young Giuseppe Verdi. But popularity does not breed respect, and even after his big break, “Anna Bolena” (1830), he remained an inconsistent figure to the critics, capable of delivering important works for the operatic stage one night, only to be dismissed as the creator of carelessly constructed melodramas by the time his next opera premiered. All of this changed with the success of two works, “L’elisir d’amore” (1832), and “Lucrezia Borgia” (1833). The latter secured Donizetti international notoriety, and he suddenly found himself venturing to Paris (then the Mecca of Western music) to stage his new opera “Marin Falliero”, though this work enjoyed a moderate success as it was overshadowed by the premiere Bellini’s “I puritani”. Donizetti returned to Naples in 1835 to resume the business of composing a new opera for the Teatro San Carlo in July of that year. That opera, of course, was “Lucia di Lammermoor,” based on Walter Scott’s novel “The bride of Lammermoor”, and adapted by the librettist Salvatore Cammarano into the three act opera we know today.

The opera premiered on September 26, 1835 (the original deadline of July was compromised by the aggravatingly slow committee at the San Carlo) with a cast that included some of the most celebrated artists of the day: Fanny Tacchinardi Persiani (Lucia), Gilbert Louis Duprez (Edgardo), Domenico Cosselli (Enrico) and Carlo Ottolini Porto (Raimondo). The opening performance and subsequent showings of that first run were enthusiastically received. In a letter to his publisher Ricordi, Donizetti writes: “The second evening I saw a thing most uncommon in Naples: namely, at the finale after the great cheers for the adagio, Duprez in the curse caused himself to be applauded to the heights before the stretta. Every number was listened to in religious silence and spontaneously hailed with shouts of ‘Evviva!’…La Tacchinardi, Duprez, Cosselli and Porto have carried themselves very well, especially the first two, who are marvelous.” The opera was consumed in Italy for two years before it made its rounds abroad, and in 1837 it debuted in Vienna, Madrid and Paris at the Theatre Italiens before spreading across the globe like wildfire. By 1846 it has been performed in Lisbon, London, Berlin, Prague, Brussels, Stockholm, Havana, Mexico City, New Orleans, Jakarta, New York, Trinidad (first opera performed there), Dublin, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Helsinki, and Zagreb. Encouraged by the success, Donizetti wrote a French version of the score (with sweeping alterations) in 1839 so the Paris audience could hear Lucia go mad in their native tongue.

This success, however, was not unqualified. Despite its initial reception the opera was not immediately loved in Italy, and it became customary for artists to replace some of the best-known sections of the score with borrowed hits from previews works by Donizetti. For instance, the mad scene was usually replaced by the rondo from Donizetti’s “Fausta,” an unthinkable practice today. Some prima donnas, unhappy with Lucia’s aria di sortita, replaced it with offerings from Donizetti’s “Rosmonda d’Inghilterra,” “Marino Falliero,” “Sancia di Castiglia” and “Il castello di Kenilworth” (you know you want to see that opera ASAP!). Regardless, it remained Donizetti’s music and the bloody nature of the story that kept the auditoriums full, and of that there can be little debate.

The opera takes place in Scotland circa 1700, and is set against the shadow of a standing family feud between the Lammermoors and the Ravenswoods. Enrico (Lord Ashton of Lammermoor) has killed the Lord of Ravenswood in order to overtake his estate and in the process has banished its rightful heir, Edgardo of Ravenswood. Enrico, however, has mismanaged the family fortune and faces ruin. Furthermore, he has compromised his family’s position by politically opposing the king. In an effort to avert ruin, Enrico has arranged for a politically advantageous marriage between his sister Lucia and Lord Arturo Bucklaw without her knowledge or consent.

When act one begins, we are in the gardens of Ravenswood Castle where Enrico’s soldiers, led by Normanno, frantically search for a stranger who has been spotted in the surroundings. Enrico and his chaplain Raimondo join the search party. Enrico fears that the stranger is none other than Edgardo, surely mocking the Lammermoors’s unhappy state. He has placed all hopes in Lucia’s arranged marriage, but is shocked to learn from Normanno that Lucia may already be in love and secretly meeting a suitor near her mother’s grave. Enrico is enraged when Normanno confesses his suspicion that this unknown man is none other than Edgardo himself, and in his aria “Cruda funesta smania”, Enrico raves against his sister.

“Cruda funesta smania” and “La pietade in suo favore” (Ettore Bastianini)

The soldiers return empty handed, but report that they have discovered the identity of Lucia’s lover, and confirm Enrico’s worst fears. Against Raimondo’s pleas for Lucia, Enrico vows to destroy her sister’s affair in the cabaletta “La pietade in suo favore”, promising that he will extinguish the couple’s love with blood.

An orchestral interlude with an intricate harp solo introduces the second scene of the first act. Lucia, accompanied by Alissa, is awaiting for Edgardo by The Fountain of the Siren. At the sight of the fountain, Lucia grows quite agitated and reminds Alisa that a Ravenswood once killed his lover and left the woman’s lifeless body in its waters years ago. In the aria di sortita beginning with “Regnava nell silenzio” a fearful Lucia tells Alisa that the woman’s ghost has appeared before her. More than a standard cavatina, this aria not only serves as a narrative, but also reveals Lucia’s fragile emotional state. Recognizing Lucia’s recollection as a bad omen, Alisa insists that Lucia stop seeing Edgardo, but Lucia cannot. Her cabaletta “Quando rapita in estasi”, with its sudden change of mood and flights of virtuosity, betrays her emotional dependency on Edgardo.

“Regnava nell silenzio” and “Quando rapito in estasi” (Joan Sutherland)

Edgardo arrives, and quickly informs Lucia that he is leaving for Paris in pursuit of political matters. Before he leaves, however, he intends to address her brother and ask for her hand in marriage, thus hoping to put an end to the interfamily strife. Lucia, knowing all too well that her brother will never consent to such union, begs Edgardo to keep their relationship a secret. The resentful Edgardo recoils from her request, and as the old hatred towards the Lammermoors reignites in his heart, he recalls the vow of revenge he pledged at his father’s grave in the duet “Sulla tomba che rinserra”. As Edgardo denounces Lucia’s kin, she collapses against his fury in a manner that the enraged Edgardo cannot ignore. He quickly begs her pardon and the two lovers reconcile.

“Sulla tomba” (Giuseppe di Stefano and Maria Callas)

Reinvigorated by his love for Lucia, Edgardo vows to be hers alone. Lucia quickly matches his pledge, and the lovers exchange rings. They are now, in essence, married. Before Edgardo departs, Lucia somberly requests that he write to her. The couple bid a heartfelt farewell in the duet “Verranno a te sull’aure”, which closes the act.

“Verranno a te sull’aure” (Giuseppe di Stefano and Maria Callas)

Act Two of the opera opens in Enrico’s apartment in Lammermoor Castle. Several months have passed, and Enrico has fully arranged the marriage between Lucia and Arturo Bucklaw. As the wedding guests gather in the castle, Enrico fears that Lucia will resist his designs. Normanno reminds Enrico that he has intercepted Edgardo’s letters to Lucia, and has also spread rumors that Edgardo has been unfaithful. As Lucia approaches, Normanno goes off to fetch Arturo, but not before giving Enrico a forged letter that will convince Lucia that Edgardo has chosen another woman as his bride. A pale and bewildered Lucia enters, and the siblings clash as Enrico tries to convince his sister that a marriage to Arturo will brighten her spirits. When Lucia protests, Enrico produces the forged letter, and is genuinely shocked when his sister collapses before him. The inconsolable Lucia joins voices with her unrelenting brother in the duet “Soffriva nel pianto”. A joyful march is heard offstage, marking the arrival of Lucia’s husband to be. She plays her last card with her brother, and confesses that she belongs to someone else. Enrico pushes aside her pleas and reminds her that his future is at stake. In the stretta “Se tradirmi tu potrai,” he threatens her that her non-compliance will surely result in his death as Lucia turns her thoughts to God and prays for a swift end to her miserable life. Her mind is about to snap.

“Soffriva nel pianto”…”Se tradirmi tu potrai” (Renata Scotto and Ettore Bastianini)

After Enrico leaves, Raimondo enters to comfort the hapless girl. Also convinced of Edgardo’s treachery, he talks the girl into giving in to her brother’s request, both for his sake and that of her departed parents. Seeing the chaplain as a lifeline, Lucia resolves to follow his advice. This short scene is customarily cut from the opera, though it sheds important light on the events that will take place in the next scene.

The next scene takes place in the great hall of the castle. The wedding guests, mostly Lammermoors and Bucklaws, have assembled to greet the arriving Arturo. Lucia enters dressed in wedding garb, supported by Raimondo and Alisa as she makes her way to her brother. Enrico presents Arturo to Lucia, who recoils from his very sight. Enrico reminds her of all that is at stake and as he hammers his point over and over, the horrified Lucia listlessly signs the wedding contract. As Enrico exhales relief, Lucia muses on what she has done: “La mia condanna ho scritto” (I have signed my death warrant). Suddenly the door opens, and all are horrified when the figure of Edgardo enters the room. In a moment frozen in time, the principals express their contrasting thoughts in the extraordinary sextet “Che mi frena in tal momento”, an ensemble so finely realized that, in terms of musical dramaturgy, is only matched by the quartet in Verdi’s Rigoletto.

“Che mi frena in tal momento” (Enrico Caruso, Amelita Galli-Curci, Giuseppe De Luca, Marcel Journet, and two lucky, lucky singers)

The irate wedding guests gang up on Edgardo, but Raimondo intervenes and is able to restore some peace. Edgardo confidently asserts his rights as Lucia’s husband, but Raimondo informs him that Lucia is now Arturo’s wife. Edgardo examines the wedding contract and tearfully demands Lucia to confirm that the signature on the form is indeed hers. A near lifeless Lucia manages to utter a terrified “yes,” and collapses as Edgardo unleashes his wrath on her, the guests, and love itself. He curses the unhappy bride as the guests run him out of the castle. The act ends.

The last act of the opera is generally composed of two scenes, but there exists a third scene that is normally cut from the score. In it, Edgardo waits for Enrico by Wolf Crag tower and the men agree to duel at dawn at the churchyard in Ravenswood. The scene immediately shifts to the great hall in the Castle of the Lammermoors, where the joyous wedding reception is taking place. Suddenly, the merriment is halted as Raimondo rushes in. He tells the stunned gathering that, answering a scream coming from the newlyweds’ nuptial chambers, he found Lucia hovering over Arturo’s bloody remains smiling, her hand still gripping the murder weapon. Just then, Lucia enters, and for the next fifteen minutes she declaims dementia through music in the celebrated mad scene.

(Mad Scene, Maria Callas)

While the sextet in the previous act proves Donizetti as the master craftsman, the mad scene proves that he was an innovator the likes not seen until Giuseppe Verdi composed his mature works. The first section of the mad scene, starting with “Il dolce suono” refuses to settle into any concise melodic pattern. Though the ear picks up one melodic statement or another, these never connect in a cohesive way to create a stable gesture. If anything, it emulates a person who has completely lost their mind. Lucia first imagines herself with Edgardo, and shrinks in fear as she sees the ghost of the fountain again, threatening to separate the couple. The second section of the mad scene, starting with “Ardon gli incensi”, gels in a more concise fashion as Lucia imagines her wedding to Arturo. If handled by a genius like Callas (and yes, there is a reason why she figures heavily in these excerpts) it can come across as incredibly creepy. The candenza towards the end of the first half of the scene contains a curious tradition. When the opera was revived in Paris for Nellie Melba in 1889, she introduced a series of interpolations with flute obbligato to further portray the wandering mind of this deranged woman. The following excerpt features Melba and three great subsequent exponents of the role performing the addition, and if you allow yourself to accept the music’s effect with the heart of an innocent child, it is likely to terrify you. Please note that Sills decides to make conjure up a tradition of her own invention.

(Nellie Melba, Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills)

Realizing that his actions have driven his sister over the edge, the mournful Enrico joins the guests in voicing their pity for the unfortunate girl. Lucia promises to pray for Edgardo from heaven in the final section of the scene “Spargi d’amaro pianto” and in a final flourish of vocal virtuosity, she collapses.

The final scene in the opera demands a lot from the tenor, because only the finest Edgardos can keep the attention of the audience after Lucia’s great scene. Edgardo awaits Enrico in the churchyard. Surrounded by the tombs of his ancestors, he admits that he cannot face life without Lucia by his side. He longs to fall under Enrico’s blade, and bemoans his love for the faithless Lucia in the aria “Fra poco a me ricovero.”

(“Fra poco a me ricovero”, John McCormack)

A procession of mourners approach, and upon his inquiries they tell Edgardo that Lucia is dying, having gone insane by her love for him. As Raimondo brings news of her death, Edgardo sings one last aria, “Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali” mourning their ill-fated love and his hopes that they will reunite in heaven. As the aria ends, Edgardo draws a sword and stabs himself before the horrified crowd. The opera ends.

(“Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali”, John McCormack)

Donizetti owes a lot to his demented Scottish girl. If “Lucrezia Borgia” cemented his international reputation during his lifetime, Lucia ensured his immortality. Following the serious blow dealt to the Bel Canto school by the principles of Wagnerism and the new stylings of Verismo, a handful of Bel Canto works survived into the 20th century, and one of these was “Lucia di Lammermoor”. Now reduced as a vehicle to the canary warblings of the light coloratura soprano branch, it kept the name of Donizetti alive in the new century. The opera had to wait for the extraordinary work of Maria Callas, who unveiled the dramatic possibilities of this strange girl. Others followed, particularly the spectacular Joan Sutherland, making it very hard for the ear to recast the part with the twitty birds that had claimed ownership on the role only forty years before. We can only hope that the Atlanta Opera’s Georgia Jarman is conscious of this legacy, because though the opera provides fabulous musical portraits of her three male counterparts, its success veritably rests on the shoulders of the title character. A vocally adept Lucia will receive her share of applause, but it takes a profound artist and a creative musician to make “Lucia di Lammermoor” into an extraordinary operatic experience. Atlanta has seen its share of great Lucias, mostly thanks to the Metropolitan Opera tour, which brought Frieda Hempel, Amelita Galli-Curci, Lilly Pons, Joan Sutherland and Renata Scotto to the southern city. The Atlanta Opera proper last presented the work eleven years ago with soprano Sally Wolf in the title role, and despite the fact that La Wolf is a fine artist and has been heard to great acclaim in other roles (a stunning Queen of the Night at the Metropolitan Opera haunts me to this day,) her Lucia in Atlanta was not a success. The current line up includes soprano Georgia Jarman as Lucia, tenor Jonathan Boyd Edgardo, baritone Stephen Powell as Enrico, bass Arthur Woodley as Raimondo and tenor Timothy Culvery as Arturo, and we hope that they will successfully erase the company’s previous stain. For tickets and more information, please visit the Atlanta Opera’s website at:

-Daniel Vasquez

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Posted by on November 10, 2011 in Arts, Opera



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