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Looking for ‘Lucia’

Lucia di Lammermoor

an opera by Gaetano Donizetti, libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, directed by Mary Zimmerman
at the Metropolitan Opera, New York

1.

In February 1834, Gaetano Donizetti, whom the premiere of his Anna Bolena four years earlier had made a star of the Italian opera world, accepted with joy an invitation by Rossini to compose an opera for the Théâtre-Italien in Paris. As the vehicle for his entrée into the Parisian music world, the composer cannily chose an adaptation of a popular French play about a murdered Venetian doge; and yet the run of Marin Faliero, as the new opera was called, was both unspectacular and short, closing after five performances. Partly this had to do with the fact that the opera premiered late in the season, a serious disadvantage particularly since it had been preceded by Bellini’s hit I Puritani; partly it was because of practical aggravations of the kind amusingly familiar from the performance histories of early-nineteenth-century opera. (The Parisian fire marshals had insisted on testing their new safety system the day after the prima, a routine that involved, among other things, flooding the theater.)

But if Marin Faliero was waterlogged, at least one contemporary account suggests that the reason had less to do with the material production than with something intrinsic to the work itself—a work remarkable, as operas about Venetian doges can be, for its preponderance of strong male roles. Two months after the Paris run, when the opera was produced in London, the critic Henry Chorley wrote that despite the great beauty of the bass, baritone, and tenor roles,

Marino Faliero languished, in part from the want of interest in the female character—a fatal fault to an opera’s popularity.

It is tempting to think that Donizetti himself might have secretly, or at least unconsciously, shared this assessment of his work’s fatal flaw. After all, soon after he returned to Italy, a month after Faliero‘s truncated run, in order to begin work on the first of three new operas he’d agreed to compose for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, he settled on a subject that seemed impervious to any possible objection that its heroine lacked “interest.”

That subject was a hugely popular 1819 novel by the recently deceased Sir Walter Scott—a work whose suitability for the theater, despite the author’s odd assertion that it didn’t lend itself to the stage, had already been demonstrated by the fact that when Donizetti set his sights on it, it had already been dramatized by librettists for three other composers (and been adapted in verse by Hans Christian Andersen for a concert performance, with musical accompaniment, in 1832). The novel—which not coincidentally has been considered the leanest and dramatically tightest of Scott’s historical fictions by readers from E.M. Forster to Thomas Hardy, the least encumbered by swags and poufs of “history”—was The Bride of Lammermoor. During six weeks in the summer of 1835, Donizetti wrote his new opera to a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano (who would go on to provide Verdi with the texts to four operas, including Il Trovatore) that drastically pared down Scott’s novel, stripping away everything but the bare bones of its Romantic tragedy: the tale of a young girl who, after being forced by her insensitive family to give up her true love and marry a husband of their choice for the sake of their political and financial advantage, is driven to madness and murder.

The madness instantly became the new work’s most famous element, and it has remained so ever since. For the climactic moment in Act III (when Scott’s Lucy Ashton, here redubbed Lucia, having lost her mind and stabbed her husband to death on their wedding night, appears before the horrified wedding guests), Donizetti memorably gave his heroine an extended scene in which the young woman’s derangement is represented with brilliant ingenuity, the fragmentation of her thoughts suggested by the fragments of earlier tunes running through this scene, her inarticulate longing and terror (earlier on, she’d sung of “joy that can be felt but not spoken”) made plain in the flights of wordless vocal pyrotechnics that slither and explode between the more articulate moments. The spooky inarticulateness comes straight from Scott’s novel: when the blood-covered Lucy is finally discovered, she doesn’t speak but instead “gibbered, made mouths, and pointed at them with her bloody fingers, with the frantic gestures of an exulting demoniac.”

Because of the ingenuity of Donizetti’s achievement in this mad scene, it soon became the best known of a number of operatic representations of female insanity, many of them to be found in the bel canto repertoire of the early nineteenth century. Donizetti’s breakthrough work, Anna Bolena, has one; the rather paranoid Bellini, always rivalrous when it came to the slightly older Donizetti, gave Puritani two.

The popularity of such scenes, and the iconic status particularly of the mad scene in Lucia, make you wonder whether they represent something essential about opera itself—a genre that, like Greek tragedy, seems to take special pleasure in representing extremes of feminine suffering. The paradox of so much opera—that is to say, the genre’s celebration of female power (that marvelous voice) and what you might call its punishment of female action (however spectacularly they sing, sopranos tend to die equally spectacularly, and in far greater numbers than, say, their tenor lovers do)—has led some scholars to see in opera, as indeed they have seen in Greek tragedy, the ambivalent operations of a male-run society that simultaneously desires women and seeks to constrain them. Typical of this school of thought is the French critic Catherine Clément, who has observed that opera

is not forbidden to women. That is true. Women are its jewels, you say, the ornament indispensable for every festival. No prima donna, no opera. But the role of the jewel, a decorative object, is not the deciding role; and on the opera stage women perpetually sing their eternal undoing…. From the moment these women leave their familiar and ornamental function, they are to end up punished—fallen, abandoned, or dead. The “fair sex” indeed.1

This reading of opera has a particular resonance when you think of Lucia, a work that was invoked throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in novels whose heroines, repressed and thwarted by their societies or husbands, themselves explode into climactic acts of violence (or are simply killed off): Donizetti’s opera makes memorable and rather pointed appearances in Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Where Angels Fear to Tread, and others.

Whether you agree with the feminist reading or not, you still have to wonder why it’s the mad scenes that grip our imaginations so. (“These onstage collapses are fascinating to watch,” as an article in the playbill for the new Metropolitan Opera production of Lucia puts it.) Which is to say, why “want of interest in the female character” is fatal to an opera—and why that “interest” so often takes the form of virtuoso singing that expresses abjectness, madness, and violence. On its opening night in September 1835, at any rate, Lucia proved a triumph. There was certainly no want of interest in its female character.

If anything, Donizetti and his librettist, Cammarano, took great pains to bring out, to the exclusion of virtually all else, the qualities of feminine pathos present in their source material. For starters, they gutted pretty much all of the late-Stuart intrigues that in the novel serve as the fraught background for the internecine maneuverings between Lucy’s family, the Ashtons, and their rivals, the Ravenswoods (the family to which, inevitably, her beloved, Edgar, belongs). A recent academic critic of Scott’s novel has written of what you might call the tension between “history” and “fiction” in The Bride of Lammermoor, a novel in which history

is a mélange of blood feuds, economic necessity and coercion, class enmities, religious intolerance, political rivalry, superstitious lore, and the menace of violence…. Critics who condemn as unwise or misplaced the love between Lucy and Ravenswood miss the point. Without fidelity in love, there is nothing worthwhile in the novel’s world.2

Donizetti, however, was famously unmoved by politics. (In 1831, after his triumph in Milan with Anna Bolena, he returned to a Rome afflicted by civic upheavals inspired by the July Revolution in Paris. His reactions are recorded in a letter to his father: “I am a man whom few things disturb, or rather only one: that is, if my opera goes badly. For the rest, I do not care.”) What did interest him—what had interested him from the start of his career, when as an ambitious young composer he was already chafing at the constraints imposed by the glittering Rossinian style and the happy endings invariably imposed by the censors—was what was interesting to many artists and composers and writers just then, which was “fidelity in love.” And of course the dreadful consequences when that love failed.

Hence while today’s Walter Scott scholars may argue that in The Bride of Lammermoor, “the tragic erotic theme” functions “as a cautionary parable about the necessity for the Union,” the operatic version reverses those priorities: what references to the original historical setting remain (there are a couple of lines about William and Mary and the French, and so forth) serve merely to intensify a drama that is essentially domestic and erotic. When we learn, in the opera, that Lucia’s brother, Enrico Ashton, finds that he has allied himself to the wrong political party, we’re interested not in the Stuarts but rather in the awful dramatic result of Enrico’s predicament: his decision to trick his sister into marrying a man she doesn’t love, but who can help restore his own fortunes. (This intense domestic crisis flares most poignantly in the Act II duet between the two siblings, when to Enrico’s repeated declarations that only Lucia’s marriage to the rich and well-connected Arturo Bucklaw can save him, Lucia pathetically replies, Ed io?, “And what of me?”)

The most significant alteration on the part of Lucia‘s composer and librettist of their source material lies not, however, in their treatment of politics, but rather in the way they approach an issue having to do with gender. For in Scott’s novel the villain of the story, the character who drives Lucy to madness and violence, is not in fact the heroine’s brother (as those who know the story from the opera are likely to suppose), but rather her mother, Lady Ashton, a “proud, vindictive, and predominating spirit,” a “bold, haughty, unbending” virago who is compared by the narrator to Lady Macbeth (!). This harridan has of course been dispensed with in Cammarano’s adaptation: we’re told in the first scene of Lucia that the girl’s mother has recently died, and indeed the ongoing references to the daughter’s grief are meant to suggest that Lucia’s mental instability had been triggered by this terrible shock. Maria Callas, a great Lucia, told a student that “you must make the public feel that this girl is ill from the beginning.” (She also referred to Enrico as a “snake.”)

  1. 1

    Catherine Clément, Opera, or the Undoing of Women, translated by Betsy Wing (University of Minnesota Press, 1988), pp. 5–7.

  2. 2

    Robert M. Polhemus, Erotic Faith: Being in Love from Jane Austen to D.H. Lawrence (University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 58.

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