On August 24, 1669, a young Scottish lass named Janet Dalrymple married David Dunbar of Baldoon. Her father was the prominent James Dalrymple, the first Viscount Stair. Her mother was described by some as “a shrew.” Janet was marrying at her family’s insistence, much against her will, since she had been secretly engaged to another man of her own choosing, Lord Rutherford, but had been forced to renounce him.
On the wedding night the bridegroom was discovered — severely wounded — in the bridal chamber, as his new wife raved nearby, insane. The bride died a few weeks later on September 12. The groom recovered from his injuries but never afterward spoke of what had happened that fateful day.
Such events, quite naturally, became the fodder of numerous stories throughout Scotland and England, and it was Sir Walter Scott (1771 – 1832) who turned them into a hugely successful novel, The Bride of Lammermoor, in 1819. Scott claimed to have the story from two different but complimentary sources, one of which was his great-aunt Margaret Swinton. As a young girl, she had known Janet Dalrymple’s brother, who had told her that on the way to the wedding ceremony his sister’s hand felt “moist, and cold as a statue.”
Gaetano Donizetti (1797 – 1848) took Scott’s novel and turned it into an opera that, at the time of its premier, seemed the very pinnacle of Romantic sensibility. Since Lucia di Lammermoor premiered in Naples in 1835 it has never been out of repertoire, no matter what new fads and fashions have swept the operatic world. For much of the Nineteenth Century is simply was opera, and came to typify much more than a musical form (as Flaubert showed in Madame Bovary.)
There are several good reasons why Lucia has remained such a vibrant presence on the stage, while many of its operatic siblings of the bel canto era have either disappeared for good, or dropped out of view for long periods of time, before being rediscovered in the 1950s and ’60s.
Donizetti had achieved international attention in 1830 with the premier of Anna Bolena. He was only 33 years old, but Anna Bolena was already his thirtieth opera. (Lucia was his forty-sixth.) Donizetti had always been a gifted melodist, but from Bolena on he gained a new facility for conveying the emotion of the characters through his tunes. The astonish power of Donizetti’s melodies could not be denied — even by other composers who often sneered at Italian opera.
Richard Wagner’s wife, Cosima, recorded in her diary for November 30, 1881, “When supper was finished, R[ichard] got up and played Italian melodies (Lucia), saying this music, in freeing itself from Rossini’s ornate style, enabled the heart to speak, and it was all suffering and lament.”
In Lucia Donizetti added the orchestra to that “suffering and lament” of his melodic gift, to give an opera its own tinta—hue or tone — that conveys the unique quality of the story though the music’s color. Rossini had pioneered in Italian opera using instruments in the orchestra for their color (to such an extent his detractors derided him as “un tedesco,” a German). Donizetti took this a step further with Lucia and used it, not for its own sake, or to titillate the ears of his audience, but as another way to convey the drama of a scene and the shifting emotions of his characters.
Today we listen to Lucia with ears that are used to the sounds of Wagner’s orchestra, the dazzling instrumentation of scores by Richard Strauss, Ravel and Debussy. When we go to the movies or watch television, we’re accustomed to the soundtrack cluing us in to shifts in the story. But Donizetti’s audience knew none of these sounds. For them, Lucia di Lammermoor was non-stop sensory overload.
From the first ominous taps of the tympani in the prelude, followed by the brooding quartet of horns, we intuitively understand this is a tragic tale. And Donizetti’s listeners would probably have been amazed at his following the horns’ opening phrases with bassoons, then clarinets, followed by oboes, and not using any of the orchestra’s strings until the entire orchestra breaks into a giant fortissimo in the middle of the prelude.
Repeatedly throughout the opera, Donizetti combines the unique timbre of the orchestral instruments with the singer’s vocal line in such a way that his audience cannot help feeling the emotions of the character on stage. For instance, after Edgardo stabs himself in the final scene, rather than following operatic convention, and having the tenor sing the final verse of his aria before finally expiring, Donizetti brought a new level of reality to the drama. It’s not the tenor who begins the reprise of his aria, but the cellos in the orchestra. Over their weeping melody, the dying tenor has only gasping, isolated phrases — which must have sent chills down the backs of his audience. Only after 17 measures does the tenor again begin to sing his aria’s melody.
Routine performances of operas by Donizetti and his fellow bel canto composers Rossini and Bellini, can give the (very false) impression there is nothing to them but a few pleasant tunes and an occasional opportunity for empty vocal display. In fact, these operas offer singers a unique chance to move audiences deeply through their ability to convey myriad emotional colors during any given scene.
“Above all, bel canto is expression,” declared Maria Callas, herself a great Lucia. “A beautiful sound is not enough. It is a method of singing, a sort of straightjacket you must put on. You learn how to approach a note, how to attack it, how to form a legato, how to create a mood. How to breathe so that there is a feeling of only a beginning and ending. It must seem as if you have taken only one big breath, though in actuality there will be many phrases with many little breaths.”
It was the great conductor Tulio Serafin who taught her “There must be expression to everything you do, a justification. I learned that every embellishment must be put to the service of music, and that if you really care for the composer, and not just for your own personal success, you will always find the meaning of a trill or a scale that will justify a feeling of happiness, anxiety, sadness. Maestro Serafin taught me, in short, the depth of music.”
In working with a young soprano on Lucia’s Act I aria, “Regnava nel silenzio,” during her master classes at the Juilliard School, Callas pointed out, “You must make the public feel that Lucia is ill from the beginning, so this aria is the key to the drama that follows. It shows the unsettled mind that later leads Lucia to murder her husband.”
A great singer will not approach a cadenza as just an opportunity for mere vocal aggrandizement, rather it’s an opportunity to strengthen a particular emotion, or point of the drama, in the minds of the audience. “Remember your cadenza should reflect the words that Lucia has just sung — ‘The waters so limpid turned crimson as blood’ — so there is no room for anything cute, or for a display of fireworks,” Callas instructed.
The part of Lucia, of course, climaxes with her famous Mad Scene. Mad scenes were nothing new to opera. People who behave in unusual and extravagant ways are the stuff of which drama — whether spoken or sung — is made. By presenting a character that is insane, composers and dramatists are free to present a vast kaleidoscope of behaviors within a very limited amount of time. And it is not only nineteenth century composers who eagerly seized the opportunity to write mad scenes for their leading characters.
In Peter Grimes (1945) Benjamin Britten wrote an intensely gripping mad scene for tenor, accompanied only by foghorns and the offstage chorus repeating the name “Peter Grimes.” Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel, written in the 1920s, has a mad scene for not only the soprano, Renata, but her fellow nuns as well.
The fact that Donizetti’s Mad Scene for Lucia is likely to strike us today as “pretty,” rather than the more “natural” ravings of Britten’s Grimes or Prokofiev’s Renata, does not mean it is any less dramatically viable. Lucia is insane, but that does not invalidate her emotions. Lucia genuinely feels each moment of terror, each moment of hope, of ecstasy, of despair — no matter how brief or how unmotivated it might be to the watching wedding guests.
To help the soprano convey this astonishing, almost non-stop cascade of shifting emotions, Donizetti pulled out all the stops musically. He carefully constructing the scene so that at the beginning Lucia moves in and out of reality, but by the end, she has become totally demented. Though the composer write out a number of vocal embellishments, he left some of the cadenzas to the individual soprano, only indicating in the score the harmonic scheme he wanted a singer to use. (Our contemporary idea that an artist may only sing the notes printed in the score and those “come scritto” — as written — would have struck Donizetti and his singers as…well, insane.)
According to some critics in the 1830s, the first Lucia, Fanny Persiani, often changed her embellishments from performance to performance, depending on her mood and the state of her voice on any given evening. Since at least the days of Handel, singers had been trained to compose their own embellishments to suit any dramatic situation, and they were also trained to embellish spontaneously during performances — much as a great jazz musician today will elaborate on a song according to his mood at the time. Since so much of Persiani’s performance was spontaneous, it is unlikely she performed the lengthy Mad Scene cadenzas with flute — since the flute’s notes have to be set in advance — that we have come to expect today.
(In fact, Donizetti first wanted to use the glass harmonica, Benjamin Franklin’s invention, as the obbligato instrument in the Mad Scene, but no suitable player could be found, so he turned to the flute. Beverly Sills’s recording of Lucia on Westminster, conducted by Thomas Schippers, uses glass harmonica, and shows Donizetti’s original instincts were correct. The spooky, otherworldly sound of the instrument is a perfect touch to that part of the opera.)
But regardless of which embellishments and cadenzas a soprano ultimately uses in the Mad Scene, the point is not the vocal acrobatics or the high-wire-circus-act aspect of the dazzling vocal display — as enjoyable as those things can be. The point is to use all these different tools to convey the vast panoply of Lucia’s tragedy.
“Conveying all that you have found in a score becomes a sort of drug,” Callas observed. “If you manage to transmit this to the public, you will have a wonderful drunken feeling which becomes contagious all around. But it is also a privilege. I consider myself privileged because I have been able to bring truth from the soul and the mind, give it to the public, and have it accepted. It is one of the greatest powers one can put in the service of one of the greatest arts — music.” Donizetti would certainly have agreed.
“Driving Audiences Mad — In Odd Ways”
The Mad Scene from Lucia, like many operatic mad scenes, is such a musical and dramatic tour de force that it is understandable singers would want to dazzle audiences with it as often as they could.
Modern audiences would not be particularly surprised to hear Lucia’s Mad Scene in an orchestral concert featuring a famous coloratura soprano. But operatic history is sprinkled with performances of the Mad Scene in ways that seem decidedly odd to us today.
The first season the Metropolitan Opera gave Puccini’s La Bohème (1900 – 01), the Mimi was sung by Nellie Melba, who was not only a famous soprano, but a famous prima donna, as well. Melba adored the role of Mimi (on more than one occasion she said it was her favorite part), but she adored dazzling her audience with her voice even more. So on several occasions, after the curtain had fallen on Puccini’s opera, Melba proceeded to sing the Mad Scene from Lucia (accompanied by the Met’s orchestra) for her adoring fans.
Bohème was not the only opera Melba deemed insufficient to stand on its own. She also sang the Mad Scene from Lucia after some performances of Verdi’s Rigoletto—one of which featured the great singing actor Victor Maurel in the title role. (One can only wonder how Maurel, who created the role of Iago in Otello and was Verdi’s first Falstaff, felt about Melba’s stunt.)
Even Wagner’s operas were not immune to such gilding. In April 1894, while the Met was on tour in Chicago, Melba sang Elisabeth in Tannhäuser. The tenor, Francesco Vignas, was ill, so to spare him (and perhaps the audience) from the ardors of Tannhäuser’s “Rome Narrative,” Act III ended after Wolfram’s aria “O du mein holder Abendstern.” As the Metropolitan Opera’s own database puts it: “So the Mad Scene from Lucia was added [with Melba] to fill out the evening.”
But times were very different a century ago. For several seasons the Met occasionally coupled the new one-act opera Cavalleria Rusticana with performances of Donizetti’s Lucia (some of which ended after the Mad Scene). Soprano Marcella Sembrich treated audiences to the Mad Scene from Thomas’s Hamlet after Rigoletto, and tossed in “Ah, non giunge” from Bellini’s La Sonnambula at the conclusion of Rossini’s Barber of Seville.
And then there was the time the Met was giving Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette in Boston. During the curtain calls an upright piano was pushed onto the stage, and the evening’s Romeo, the great Jean De Reszke, sat down and accompanied his Juliet — Melba, of course — in “Home, Sweet Home.”
This article originally appeared in the 2005 Aspen Opera Theater program book.