Lucia di Lammermoor

Donizetti and Lucia di Lammermoor

Donizetti was born in 1797 in the town of Bergamo in Northern Italy. He had the great fortune to be the student of Johann Simon Mayr, a Bavarian composer and teacher who was a leading figure in the development of serious opera in Italy. After this strong compositional foundation, he attended the conservatory in Bologna and studied with teachers that Rossini had worked with just a few years before. And, like Rossini, he ended up in Naples working for the Teatro San Carlo after proving himself with the success of one of his early operas in Rome. His work in Naples including a professorship at the Naples conservatory, but during these years he frequently had the opportunity to write operas for various theatres throughout Italy: in Milan, Palermo, Florence and Rome. It was his opera Anna Bolena, about the second wife of Henry VIII that shot him to fame with its production at the Teatro Carcano in Milan. The opera was so well thought of that it was repeated in Paris and London and generated in those cities a demand for more of the composer’s works. By the early 1830s Donizetti was an international figure.

This brings us to the period immediately prior to the composition of Lucia. At this time Donizetti was associating himself with the greatest singers of the age: the sopranos Giuditta Pasta and Maria Malibran, the tenor Giovanni Rubini, the baritone Giorgio Ronconi and the bass Filippo Galli. These singers were the true operatic superstars of their day. In 1835 he was invited to Paris where he had the opportunity to write his first opera for a French audience. While there he absorbed the international flavor of that city, meeting some of the greatest composers and artists of the day, including Frederic Chopin.

Returning from Paris to Naples, he embarked on the score for Lucia di Lammermoor, intended for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, the center of most of his activity. For this opera he was going to have two more great singers in the cast: the soprano Fanny Persiani and the tenor Gilbert Duprez. But the management of the theatre was badly run, there were delays in the promised libretto, and Donizetti was getting increasingly impatient. He was finally paired with the great librettist Salvatore Cammarano with whom he wrote a number of further operas and who himself became one of the important early librettists for Giuseppe Verdi. Cammarano took Donizetti’s chosen subject, The Bride of Lammermoor, and reduced it to its most basic plot. In the process some important characters in the Scott original were lost, but the story was tightened and made far more dramatic in its overall impact. Donizetti completed the score in six weeks getting it ready for the stage in time for its premiere on September 26, 1835. In the midst of the flurry of compositional activity during that summer, the king of Naples fired the entire management of the theatre and funding for the company was lost and then mysteriously restored. But all went well on opening night, and Lucia was an instant success.

Success was probably due as much to the greatness of the singers as it was to Donizetti’s brilliant score. Persiani was in fine voice and her performance of the famous mad scene brought the audience to near frenzy. Duprez was similarly well received, as it was this tenor who began taking high Cs from the chest voice rather than from the weaker, ethereal head voice preferred by earlier tenors. The excitement and drama of the sound was hard to resist and by the 1840s every Italian tenor was copying him, making it possible for Verdi to write some of his most demanding tenor roles.

The opera captured the imagination of the Romantic audience, fulfilling their demand for gothic stories, supernatural chills and fine singing all at the same time. And although the opera went through a period of nearly fatal cuts by well-meaning producers, it has survived intact and is performed today to universal acclaim by singers who can meet Donizetti’s vocal and dramatic demands.

After the success of Lucia his operas continued to conquer Europe, with one great opera house after another producing his ever popular works. But in 1835 his life took a personal turn towards tragedy, with both his parents dying within weeks of each other, and his wife Virginia dying of cholera during a frightening epidemic. On top of that, none of his three children lived beyond a few days after birth and he himself was diagnosed with syphilis. We notice that he set himself a frantic pace for work during his last years before the effects of the disease began to interrupt his daily life in 1844. In that time he composed Roberto Devereux, La favorite, La fille du regiment, Maria Padilla, Linda di Chamounix, Dom Sebastien and Don Pasquale. He lasted four long and painfully tragic years suffering terribly with the effects of his illness, in and out of sanitoriums until 1848 when he finally died.

The composer’s works were so well thought of that Hector Berlioz remarked, “One can no longer speak of the opera houses of Paris but only of the opera houses of Monsieur Donizetti!” It was by his operas that all young Italian composers were forced to be compared both by the fanatical operatic public and impresarios throughout Europe. It was the opera Nabucco by another young Northern Italian which shared the La Scala season of 1842 with Donizetti’s Maria Padilla, signaling the appearance of the next great composer of opera: Giuseppe Verdi.

Sir Walter Scott and The Bride of Lammermoor

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) was the most influential novelist of his time. His works inspired such disparate artists as the Brontë sisters, Victor Hugo and Alexander Pushkin. It seems that during his lifetime, everyone was reading his novels. Scott was so prolific and so universally read in his own time that he made quite a living for himself. From his teenage years he was fascinated with the lore, ballads and legends of his native Scotland and he, like his contemporaries the Grimm Brothers in Germany, collected these materials with great enthusiasm. He was especially drawn to stories of the Middle Ages, stories of knights in shining armor, ladies in distress and tales of the crusades. He was also fascinated by the Reformation era in Scotland, the deposing of the last Stuart King, James II and the accession of William and Mary in the 17th century. The bloody feuds of this period, the attempt by James to force England back to Catholicism and the last gasp attempt of Scotland to have its own identity apart from England were all part of the history and atmosphere of The Bride of Lammermoor, published in 1819.

In this novel Scott seems to have made a conscious effort to write something quite different from other of his novels like Ivanhoe, published at about the same time. The Bride of Lammermoor is dark and Gothic with supernatural elements and bizarre turns of events that stimulated the imaginations of 19th century readers. Scott is at his best dealing with these more grotesque elements of the novel, especially in his descriptions of the brooding Scottish landscape and the ruined family castle of the Ravenswoods, Wolf’s Crag. These elements are all part and parcel of the Romantic spirit, of which Scott was both purveyor and wide-eyed consumer. Here is the description of the funeral of the Lord of Ravenswood at the moment that his son Edgar, the hero of the novel, gives his father over to the grave:

In the countenance of the young man alone, resentment seemed for the moment overpowered by the deep agony with which he beheld his nearest, and almost his only, friend consigned to the tomb of his ancestry. A relative observed him turn deadly pale, when, all rites being now duly observed, it became the duty of the chief mourner to lower down into the charnel vault, where mouldering coffins showed their tattered velvet and decayed plating, the head of the corpse which was to be their partner in corruption. He stept to the youth and offered his assistance, which, by a mute motion, Edgar Ravenswood rejected. Firmly, and without a tear, he performed that last duty. The stone was laid on the sepulchre, the door of the aisle was locked, and the youth took possession of its massive key.

Such atmospherics weren’t lost on contemporary readers and not just in the British Isles. The whole of Europe was reading Scott’s novels in translation and he was particularly inspiring to Italian composers of opera, whose essentially Romantic art form was starving for such scenarios. Other works by Scott which have been used as a source for opera are: The Lady of the Lake (Rossini, 1819), Guy Mannering (Boildieu, 1825, as La dame blanche), Rob Roy (Flotow, 1836), The Heart of Midlothian (Carafa, 1829), Ivanhoe (Marschner, 1829; Pacini, 1832; Nicolai, 1840; Sullivan, 1891), Kenilworth (Auber, 1823; Donizetti, 1829) and The Fair Maid of Perth (Bizet, 1867).

The Music of Lucia di Lammermoor

It is instructive from a historical standpoint to have Rossini’s Barber immediately precede Donizetti’s tragic Lucia in our 2006 season. We can see and hear within a month’s length of time just how much Italian opera progressed in the twenty years separating these two standard works of the repertory (1816 and 1835). It cannot be denied that all Italian composers of opera after Rossini had to incorporate his ideas and techniques or suffer the consequences. His operas so defined the art form that to ignore his dominating influence was to lose a significant share of the audience market! Therefore in Donizetti’s early operas, both tragic and comic, the marked influence of Rossini can be strongly felt. As he gained confidence and experience, an individual style asserted itself and it is this style that permeates the score of Lucia di Lammermoor.

The overall tinto or ‘color’ of the orchestration is appropriately dark. The Prelude begins with a choir of four horns in B-flat minor, immediately establishing the somber character of the work. It is followed by a chorus of men only, and solo passages by the lower-voiced principals, Enrico, Normanno and Raimondo. The first ‘lightness’ of color is Lucia’s soprano voice and we’re not to hear it until the second scene. Speaking of darkness, Donizetti stretches the limits of writing whole pieces of the score in minor keys, something not commonly done at the time. Lucia’s first aria, “Regnava nel silencio”, is in D minor (even though the key signature is for D major!) and although it doesn’t remain in that key for long it establishes the haunted, melancholy character of the heroine. Orchestral textures throughout also tend towards the dark: note the introduction and the first twelve bars of Edgardo’s aria “Fra poco a me ricovero”. It is unusually introduced by three horns, two bassoons and timpani. When the strings enter on “una pietosa lagrima” it is not the entire string orchestra, but the violas and basses, creating an unusually thick texture, responding to the pathetic nature of the text.

It is in similar instances of text setting that Donizetti’s talent shines. No significant poetic image is not ‘painted’ in the orchestra or ornamented in the vocal line. Listen to his setting of the text “ecco su quell margine l’ombra mostrarsi a me” (“and there at the edge of the pool the ghost appeared to me”) in her opening aria, “Regnava”. The fountain is ‘painted’ for our ears in the brief cadenza on ‘margine’; the word for ‘shade’, or ‘ghost’ (ombra) is given to the lowest note in the passage. Examples like this abound.

The most spectacular musical effects occur in the famous mad scene, of course. Seemingly every human emotion passes through Lucia’s mind in this scene, and melodic reminders of her love duet with Edgardo in Act I provide the pathos necessary for the audience to identify with her and her sense of lost love. Originally the scene was to be shared with the glass harmonica, an idea evidently discarded by the composer just before the premiere. Its eerie harmonics would certainly have produced a wonderful effect, but the flute is much more practical and, frankly, musical. (The glass harmonica can be heard in Beverly Sills’ recording of Lucia, a Westminster album recently re-released on CD). Donizetti perfectly captures Lucia’s disintegration through incredibly effective music, and although Edgardo ends the opera, this scene is the evening’s payoff!

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