Lucia di Lammermoor
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 …