Gaetano Donizetti  — LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR



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.

Carscreugh Cas­tle, Janet Dalrymple’s home

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.

Giuseppe di Stefano’s Edgardo was extraordinary

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.”

Callas, Tul­lio Ser­afin and Fer­ruc­cio Tagli­avini record­ing “Lucia”

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.

Joan Sutherland’s first Lucia made her world famous.

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.

Luisa Tetrazzini’s Lucia drove audi­ences into a frenzy.

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.)

Nel­lie Melba in 1891

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.