- 24 Feb 2020
Probably one of the most famous operas by Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor is an « extraordinary triumph » since its creation at the Teatro San Carlo di Napoli in 1835, thanks to an exalted composition and to a simple and effective libretto, but also thanks to its (many) successives singers.
Lucia di Lammermoor experienced a veritable resurrection after Maria Callas played the role in Mexico City in 1952. The archetypical Italian Romantic opera, this work, considered Donizetti’s masterpiece, long suffered from a false reputation. Many saw in it only the sparkle of dazzling vocal virtuosity that made it something of a Holy Grail for coloratura singers with amazing high notes. Maria Callas established, once and for all, that the famous “mad scene” in Act Three required as much dramatic sensitivity as technical prowess. Lucia di Lammermoor could then no longer be reduced to “an opera for a prima donna”.
Walter Scott and the Mists of Scotland
In 1819 a new novel by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) was published, The Bride of Lammermoor. The Scottish author was one of the most famous writers of his day, and his novels were the rage all over Europe. His most fervent admirers included Goethe, Pushkin and Balzac. Lord Byron stated: “Scott is today’s most amazing writer… I know of no other reading in which I can immerse myself so pleasurably as in one of his works”. More than one young woman shared with Emma Bovary, heroine of Flaubert’s famous novel, the endless daydreaming that comes from reading the works of Walter Scott: “She would have preferred living in some old manor house, like those long-bodiced chatelaines who spent their days(…) watching for the arrival from deep in the countryside of some knight in shining armour on a black horse.”
In those days people were fascinated by Scotland and its Gothic Romanticism, so perfectly illustrated by The Bride of Lammermoor, whose author was inspired by an actual event that happened 50 years before the novel was published. The heroine of the drama was a certain Janet Dalrymple, daughter of a Scottish nobleman, William Dalrymple, Viscount Stair. Janet, madly in love with young Lord Rutherford, was promised to him. But under relentless pressure from her father, she had to give up her engagement to marry the man her family wanted her to marry, David Dunbar. And so it was with a broken-hearted bride that the wedding was held on 12 August 1668. During the wedding night, horrible cries were heard in the castle coming from the nuptial chamber. People ran to help – and found Janet crouching in a corner, wild-eyed, quite mad, as her husband lay in a pool of his own blood, showing multiple knife wounds. Unlike the husband of Walter Scott’s heroine, David Dunbar survived his wounds, while Janet succumbed to hers without regaining consciousness.
The Bride of Lammermoor was such a success that various theatrical and operatic adaptations of it were produced in the year after the novel was published. One of the works bearing the same name is of special interest, as it could have more directly inspired Donizetti’s Lucia: in Paris, in 1828, at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin, a melodrama by Victor Ducange (1783-1833) was performed, bringing to the stage two of the greatest actors of the time, Marie Dorval (1798-1849) and Frédérick Lemaître (1800-1876). In the 1810s-1830s, Italian composers and librettists were especially interested in French melodramas, which offered synopses of popular novels and plays that could easily be transposed to an opera libretto.
Before Donizetti and his librettist, Salvatore Cammarano (1801-1852), took it on to turn it into a masterpiece of Romantic bel canto, The Bride of Lammermoor inspired four operas. Lucia marked the start of a fruitful collaboration between the two men, who went on to work together on seven other works.
From Walter Scott to Donizetti
A number of Walter Scott novels have been turned into operas. These include Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth (1829), another Donizetti workand La Dame blanche (1825)by Boieldieu or La Jolie fille de Perth (1867)byBizet. But Lucia di Lammermoor constitutes an extraordinary success, boosted by the incomparable melodic inventiveness of a composer galvanized by a perfect story.
Donizetti was at the pinnacle of his glory. The musician had just added some of his loveliest masterpieces to the Italian repertory, with Anna Bolena (1830), L’Elissir d’amore(1832), Lucrezia Borgia (1833) and Maria Stuarda (1834). In May 1835 the composer chose the tragic fate of the bride of Lammermoor in response to a commission from the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples. He immediately felt gripped by the subject, carried away; he composed feverishly, completing his opera in just two months, on 6 July. Salvatore Cammarano’s adaptation set the standard for the genre: from this story with multiple characters and events the librettist was able to extract a simple, effective libretto built around a heroine tortured and broken by the violence of male conflicts.
Its debut performance at the San Carlo in Naples on 26 September 1835 was an extraordinary triumph, from start to finish. Three days earlier, Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) died suddenly in Puteaux under circumstances never clarified. Donizetti then became the uncontested leader of the Italian school of opera. He’d been one of the first to recognise the dazzling success of I Puritani (1834), young Bellini’s last opera. The mad scene in Lucia is a reference to the one in I Puritani that has Elvira, wearing her wedding dress, wander about bereft of reason after her groom has fled. Madness was the only possible outcome for Elvira as it had been for Imogene, the betrayed wife in another Bellini masterpiece, Il Pirata (1827). Fanny Persiani (1812- 1867) was the first to play Lucia. Just 23 years old, she had already established herself as one of the most remarkable performers of her day. The young soprano had been partnered with La Pasta at the Fenice in Venice in Rossini’s Tancredi , and she was encouraged by Malibran, which is to say she received support from two of the greatest divas of the time. The role of Lucia remained associated with Fanny Persiani for the rest of her career, and she was the first to play the role in Paris, London and Vienna, always with the same success. Beyond the vocal performance inherent in this role, one of the most difficult in all the repertory of bel canto sopranos, she was able to become Lucia, embody Lucia, and bring Lucia to life. Even today, this is what makes the difference between singers who sing Lucia and those who embody the character. Théophile Gautier (1811-1872) waxed enthusiastic about Fanny Persiani’s voice, which possessed “a surprising range, sweetness and vibrato “ that enabled her to go “effortlessly all the way to D and F sharp”. He added: “Madame Persiani controls and directs an organ of extraordinary power with admirable ease”. This opinion by an enlightened amateur relevantly describes the contours of the role, legitimising the various approaches to it, as with Maria Callas, Renata Scotto, Beverly Sills, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé and June Anderson, Natalie Dessay and Patrizia Ciofi, to name just a few. The most varied singers have wanted to take on the role, each of them giving it a new identity, often based on truncated or transposed scores. The work’s very success has meant that it would be modified each time it was presented. The most significant overhaul was the one that Donizetti himself undertook for a production that opened in Paris in 1839. This version was added to the Opera’s repertory in 1846 and long remained there alongside the Italian version. The score seems to have evolved with changing tastes over time. It was not until the late 1970s that more conductors and singers began wanting to bring back an original version.
Passionate love to the point of madness
Lucia is the archetypical Romantic heroine. At the end of the first act, the girl and her lover reiterate their strong love for one another, exchanging rings to make it real. Expressing the full fervour of her passion, with a strange foreboding, Lucia already associates it with complaints (“lamenti”), pain (“dolori”), and bitter tears(“amara lagrima”). Impassioned and determined, she is finally broken when she is forced to publicly renounce her love for Edgardo at the end of the second act, the drama’s climax. This critical scene advances like a devastating tornado, destroying any possibility of going back. Now Lucia has no other choice but to flee to another place imagined by her delirious mind. Edgardo sees the one who pledged her love for him sign a marriage contract with another. He curses Lucia before disappearing in a whirlwind of rage. The action gives way to the distractions of madness, which is the only way to provide the illusion of reconciliation in the relief of pardon.
The most-anticipated scene is the one in the great hall of Ravenswood Castle, amid the guests at her wedding, where Lucia appears, seeming to come out of the tomb” (Act 3, Scene 5). Like a sleepwalker, she talks to herself, in snatches. She is now beyond the reach of the destructive power of men. This famous “mad scene” is one of the most famous in the entire opera repertory, one of the most difficult but also most impressive, both vocally and theatrically. It begins as if in a dream: Lucia has gone to the other side of the mirror.
Donizetti’s genius lay in completely moulding the music to the text, to reflect the inner shuddering of Lucia’s soul. The music is constantly linked to the expressive instability of the feelings, alternating exaltation and despondency. Lucia thinks she hears Edgardo’s voice; she addresses him with all her love: “Io ti son resa” – “I’ve come back to you”. She asks him to sit next to her on the edge of the fountain where they agreed to meet to say their goodbyes before his departure for France. But the reminder of their love also brings back the memory of the spectre of death at the fountain: the frightened Lucia screams at the sight of this phantom returned to haunt her. She then tells Edgardo to meet her at the altar, and she suddenly believes she hears the hymn from their wedding, which she so wanted and which was stolen from her. “Ardon gli incensi” – “the incense is burning”: she sees the torches shining all around her; she sees the priest who has just blessed them. She is happy, and the melody, imbued with rapturous tenderness, rises slowly towards the heavens like her voice, borne upward by something surreal. Now that the barriers of society and reason have fallen, Lucia experiences a sort of intoxication that culminates in these mad notes. She uses every ounce of her strength as she addresses Edgardo, assuring him that she will pray for him in the Great Beyond where she is heading, reaching a very sharp B that is the sign of death.
Donizetti had wanted an instrument capable of establishing a climate of “disturbing strangeness” to accompany the voice of his heroine. That is why he choose the glass harmonica, which had a reputation for creating nervous disorders in listeners who succumbed to its almost supernatural charm. The material difficulties involved in using this instrument, which at the time was disappearing, forced Donizetti to replace it with the flute.
“She let herself go, lulled by the melodies, and felt her entire being vibrate, as if violin bows had worked over her nerves” wrote Flaubert, evoking the vivid sensations experienced by Emma Bovary. The young woman attended a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor at the Théâtre des Arts in Rouen. For Emma and for Lucia, marriage has proved a major obstacle to achieving happiness. “Why then did not Lucia, like Emma, resist, beg?” With this question about Madame Bovary comparing herself to Lucia, Flaubert creates a mirror effect between two feminine fates: her character, like the one in the opera, will experience decline and death for having wanted to get beyond the boundaries of her condition, subject to the good will and bad will of men.
It is worth noting that Donizetti died “with” Lucia on 8 April 1848. Taken back to his home town of Bergamo after he was stricken with cerebral palsy, he lay dying on his bed when an organ grinder played the finale to Lucia di Lammermoor under his windows. The dying man’s eyes lit up, and he was heard to murmur “Ah! my Lucia” just before taking his final breath.
Catherine Duault – Opera Online