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.