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.”)

The creators of Lucia have, then, very pointedly isolated their fragile heroine in a world that consists virtually exclusively of men. Indeed, at a moment when Italian composers were exploring the rich musical and dramatic possibilities of intense pairings between two sopranos, or sopranos and mezzos, in Romantic melodramas—Bellini’s Norma and Adalgisa in Norma (1831), Donizetti’s own Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour in his breakthrough Anna Bolena—it’s striking that Donizetti has worked so hard to deprive his Lucia of significant female companionship. (The role of her confidante, Alisa, is so shallow and negligible that even in the nineteenth century, not long after Lucia’s triumphant premiere, people were likely to talk of the great “quintet” in Act II, which is in fact a sextet.) More, the men with whom he and Cammarano have surrounded her—Edgardo included—are scarily self-involved and prone to violent emotions (they talk a great deal about their rabbia, their rage): they are, if anything, as proud, vindictive, and predominating as Scott’s Lady Ashton ever was.

Here, comparison not with The Bride of Lammermoor but with another predecessor is instructive. Lucia is just as top-heavy with male roles as the failed Marin Faliero was; but in the later, successful work, the fact that the heroine is surrounded by strong men was not an oversight but a carefully considered plan—not so much an abandonment on the part of the composer as a purposeful imprisonment, one that makes us think of her vulnerability, her suffering. Her “interest.”

The effect produced by all this textual maneuvering is one to which we have become so accustomed, which feels to us so natural, that it’s easy to forget that it was the result of self-conscious and quite canny craft: the insistent, ever-growing emphasis, throughout Lucia, on qualities of abandoned pathos, of a feminine suffering that begins in an oppression that’s symbolized by an act of sexual intrusion, and ends with an explosion of spectacularly aggressive and finally self-destructive energies: a shift from sacrificial victim to avenging harpy that reminds you of Greek tragedies that were the ancestors of early-nineteenth-century dramas like Lucia.

That it’s easy to take those archetypes for granted is plain in our reactions to the opera today. In an assessment of the notoriously postmodern, heavily (if not heavy-handedly) symbolic production of Donizetti’s opera by the director Francesca Zambello, which debuted at the Met in 1992 to a chorus of boos from the audiences and disdain from most critics, a New York Times writer referred to the “perhaps gratuitous feminist spin” that Zambello put on the opera in her director’s note (where she referred to Lucia as “a tale of psychological terror, of emotional blackmail, and of sexual politics set in the half-seen realm of the unconscious”3 ). And yet, as so carefully constructed by Donizetti and Cammarano, Lucia di Lammermoor is the story of an isolated young girl, the only female in a violent family, who’s tricked by her ambitious brother into marrying a man she doesn’t know—and by “marrying” we mean, necessarily, having sex with him; Cammarano’s text is not shy about referring to the talamo, the “marriage-chamber,” into which Lucia is forced—in order to save her brother and his money and position. She must suffer, that is, to save the man. If to see such a story as having feminist overtones is “gratuitous,” it would be very nice to know what an ungratuitous feminist spin might look like.


This ought to have been an ideal vehicle for demonstrating the much-advertised priorities of the “new Met”—the institution that, under the leadership of Peter Gelb, has made a great deal in the press of its commitment to dramatically meaningful productions, directed by eminent people of the legitimate theater. This emphasis, I think, is part of the larger and very admirable aims of the new general manager to popularize grand opera, to bring it to a new audience: the drama in opera, you’re meant to feel, is the element that anyone, even those who aren’t (yet) in love with operatic music, could be moved by. The Lucia that premiered last month, in a new production by the Tony Award–winning stage director Mary Zimmerman and featuring the appealing French soprano Natalie Dessay (who, the promotion reminds us, started out as an actress and only then segued into singing) is, quite literally, the poster child for this new regime and its ambitious program. At the beginning of the autumn, it was impossible, if you lived in New York, to wait for a bus without being greeted by the stark image of Ms. Dessay’s gamine face, eyes wide with simulated madness, her mascara running, plastered on the side of the bus stop.

All the more strange, then, that this important new production is such a bore. Despite a strong and committed cast and a director who could be counted on to make much of the dramatic aspects of a work whose ravishing music is often considered sufficient cause to perform it, this Lucia failed to add up—failed, most egregiously (and most surprisingly) of all, to make anything meaningful or memorable out of what you might not at all gratuitously call the “feminist” element, which, you’d think, would give it particularly contemporary interest.

A big problem here is the direction. You could see why Donizetti’s opera, with its elemental Romantic plot and Every-Madwoman heroine, might have appealed to Mary Zimmerman, a writer and director who has always been interested in the possibilities of starkly dramatizing archetypal, even mythic material: the Odyssey of Homer, the Thousand and One Nights, and Ovid’s compendium of erotic disaster stories, the Metamorphoses. In staging these works, Zimmerman often has striking “concepts”: her Metamorphoses was set in a big, shallow swimming pool; her Arabian Nights ended in present-day Baghdad.

Still, the problem with concepts is that most great works are too elastic, too polyphonic, to be squeezed into a single notion: just where those impressive-looking concepts get you, intellectually or indeed emotionally, isn’t always clear. I loved the idea of putting Ovid under water, not least because Ovid loved it, too: Metamorphoses begins with the watery chaos of creation, a perfect medium, you realize, for the corporeal transformations that follow. But Zimmerman never really made the water mean anything: it was just the stuff in which the actors splashed around as they acted out, fairly conventionally, the various stories.

A lot of the new Lucia has the same high-concept feel. There is, to start with, the mise en scène, which here has been inexplicably updated from the late-seventeenth to the late-nineteenth century. (If you squint, you might think you’re watching a dramatization of Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds—at least as far as the costumes go: Zimmerman hasn’t filled the Met’s vast stage with much decor, perhaps intending for the airplane-hangar-like stage to dwarf the characters and thereby emphasize their isolation.) Updatings of operas can be controversial, but shouldn’t necessarily be so: there is, at the very least, an argument to be made for updating the action of many operas to the time of composition, the moment whose intellectual and cultural climate can explain a great deal about the work itself. This would certainly be the case of Lucia, composed during a period of a decade and a half that showed a particular fascination with female madness—the period of the Brontës, of the “madwoman in the attic.” Why Zimmerman should have chosen the late 1870s rather than the 1830s was anybody’s guess: it seemed not only against the grain (the end of the nineteenth century, with its bold heroines, jars as a milieu in which to set a pathetic Romantic tragedy) but gratuitous, a decision never explained.

And—worse—never capitalized on, never followed through. We hear again and again in Lucia that the girl is still in mourning for her mother; you’d have thought that Zimmerman would make something of this fact, given that few cultures have fetishized grief and mourning as much as the late-Victorian one in which she’s chosen to set her production. A Lucia weighted down by the trappings of deep mourning would have presented a striking and psychologically suggestive picture—a visual reminder of the trauma that haunts her from the start. But Zimmerman doesn’t excavate the possibilities of her own concept.

A rigorously coherent use of the setting that she’s imposed on this Lucia would have given resonance to other clever but ultimately unrealized notions. During the great Act II sextet, when a furious Edgardo interrupts the wedding between Lucia and the wealthy Arturo and all the major characters sing their various impressions, Zimmerman “opens out” this usually static moment in a suggestive way: as the principals sing, a wedding photographer fusses at them, nudging them into a wedding-day pose—a conceit that nicely communicates the dreadful tension, so common in operatic drama, between the crushing demands of the outside world and the interior turmoil that torments the characters. But like too much else in this staging—not least, an enchantingly pretty fall of snow that’s a perfect visual analogue to the descending harp arpeggios that introduce Lucia’s first aria (in which she describes seeing the ghost of a girl murdered by her lover’s ancestor)—this one is just a “moment” that comes and then, like the photographer’s flash at the end of the sextet, goes up in a puff of smoke.

Occasionally, Zimmerman’s concepts do real damage to the carefully constructed meanings of the numbers. In the new production, as Lucia narrates her Gothic tale of ghosts and murdered maidens, the ghost itself, in the form of an all-too-corporeal, white-powdered dancer, flops around the heroine as she sings, and then glides away, writhing and beckoning, before disappearing a bit awkwardly into the fountain. Although this is visually arresting and certainly novel, to make the ghost concrete—to make it real—seems a very serious misapprehension of the meaning of the text here. Cammarano begins with this hysterical narrative of ghosts and visions because he wants, from the start, to underscore the girl’s mental fragility (as Callas understood so well). If the ghost is real to us, the audience, then our sense of the heroine’s delicate emotional state is inevitably diminished—as is, just as inevitably, our sense of the final murderous madness as a culmination rather than an aberration.

Such novelties, so effortfully contrived (Zimmerman wants us to believe that the images of skeletal tree branches on the show curtain before each act represent “the human vascular system in the brain”), stood in stark contrast to the director’s inexplicable abandonment of the actors. Both times I saw this Lucia, I found my eyes wandering all over the stage (and sometimes the house) during even the most dramatic moments; there was nothing happening on the stage to hold the attention. Certainly nothing to do with the chorus, in which Zimmerman shows no interest: again and again they simply stood around in big clumps, bizarrely unresponsive to anything that was happening around them. The latter is a particularly serious problem, needless to say, in the mad scene. I recently watched a DVD of a 1967 Lucia with Renata Scotto and Carlo Bergonzi, filmed in Japan, as well as a couple of performances by Joan Sutherland from the mid-1980s: what struck me was how each of the chorus members seemed to have been directed, to have been given a “character” to play, horrified, appalled, sympathetic, whatever. This is crucial: their reactions to the unfolding tragedy help cue the audience’s reactions.

That level of detail is, in Zimmerman’s direction of the principals, often absent—and when it’s present, it’s misguided. Her approach to directing opera singers can be strangely amateurish; often she simply moves her principals downstage to sing, and then they stand there singing, and that’s it. (She must be a conductor’s dream.) This important director from the “straight” theater showed little concern for using the actors and their bodies (and the spaces between those bodies) to delineate character, to express something about the drama of the plot—or, indeed, the drama of the music.

This is a particularly serious failing in early-nineteenth-century Italian melodrama, in which the decisive gesture, always indicated by the score, the arc of an aria, or the strong declamatory force of a piece of recitative, is everything. Recalling the Lucia of Maria Callas, in a 1955 Berlin performance conducted (and largely directed) by Herbert von Karajan, the Italian director Sandro Sequi spoke shrewdly of the importance not of “realism” but of high stylization, the starkly meaningful gesture, for performances of bel canto opera—a stylization that, as classical actresses know well, paradoxically releases, rather than constrains, emotional realism:

For me, [Callas] was extremely stylized and classic, yet at the same time human—but a humanity on a higher plane of existence, almost sublime. Realism was foreign to her, and that is why she was the greatest of opera singers. After all, opera is the least realistic of theater forms.

Years after Callas’s 1955 Berlin Lucia, people remembered the starkly stylized way in which she used just her arms in the mad scene “like the wings of a great eagle, a marvelous bird. When they went up, and she often moved them very slowly, they seemed heavy—not airy like a dancer’s arms, but weighted…. There was a continuous line to her singing and movements, which were really very simple.”4

That Renata Scotto was an heiress to that high tradition as well is clear even in the grainy and amateurishly recorded Japanese television performance from 1967. Every line of Donizetti’s music is accompanied by a telling movement, or by an equally telling stillness: this singer may have been small and plump, but she knew how (and was unafraid) to use her body. In her performance, when Lucia reads the (forged) letter meant to convince her of Edgardo’s faithlessness, she crumples a little (and why not? The word used of her at this moment is vacilli, “totter”); when Edgardo prepares to tell her, in Act I, that he must leave for France and she says Che dici?, “What are you telling me?,” she turns away in a small but vivid movement of quiet pain. Of such small things are memorable performances made.

No one seems to have explained any of this to Natalie Dessay, whose bride of Lammermoor was, if anything, the greatest example of the curious inertness that characterized the show. Her benumbed, almost anesthetized Lucia was the product of an interpretation that all too clearly had been carefully considered; but it was, too, an interpretation wholly at odds with both Donizetti’s music and Cammarano’s text—with, that is to say, the work’s style.

I suspect that this failure might, paradoxically, actually have something to do with what the Met is interested in these days: “serious” acting, taking the theater “seriously.” Much has been made of Dessay’s training as a modern stage actress (the playbill informs us that she’ll be appearing in a Thomas Bernhard play in 2010 in Paris). But as admirable as such preparation is, it doesn’t necessarily have much to do with the operatic stage of nearly two hundred years ago—which is to say, the stage for which Donizetti wrote the music that, whatever your directorial interpretation, still has to be played at every performance of Lucia. Dessay, whose lithe and adorable stage presence is paralleled by a coolly agile voice very much in the French tradition, seems to have worked very hard to create a Lucia at odds with the singer’s own well-known persona. (She was a fun Zerbinetta and a fine, flirty Manon.) Hence her subtle, realistic, traumatized, “psychological” interpretation of Donizetti’s crushed heroine.

But in bel canto opera, with its post-classical high stylization, the kind of subtleties that Dessay wants to telegraph simply don’t register—they’re at odds with the music. Her Lucia enters in a kind of numbed fog—a nice idea, except for the fact that her music here is filled with foreboding, agitated and anxious in the ghost-story cavatina and, in the cabaletta, tinged with hysteria. So Dessay’s physical demeanor on stage, intended no doubt to convey a bruised psyche, merely came across as indistinct, inexpressive. (When this Lucia reads the forged letter, she shows virtually no physical reaction at all; she could have been reading a Chinese take-out menu. No vacillando here.) The same quality of dissociation characterized the singing, which although technically expert on the part of all three leads (particularly the ferocious Enrico of Mariusz Kwiecien, a role you hope he gets to reprise in a more congenial production), was curiously devoid of any sense of real engagement. This problem was not helped by the conducting of James Levine, who has always seemed indifferent to the bel canto repertoire. The effect of all of this was to muffle rather than amplify the heroine’s tragedy.

There were, in fact, three gestures in this Lucia that I particularly remembered after the show was over, all of them illuminating in some way the fatal flaws of this production. The first, a cheap and vulgar one, showed the emptiness of the “concepts” that plagued the direction. During the furious duet between Lucia and her brother in the first scene of Act II—the “you must save me”/”and what of me?” duet—Zimmerman has her Enrico reaching suggestively along Lucia’s leg at one point. This was not only wholly inappropriate to the drama but wholly unnecessary as well: Cammarano’s libretto and Donizetti’s music make Lucia’s victimization amply clear without any need for the now-fashionable invocation of incest. Like so many of the conceits here, this one went nowhere—just another flake of falling snow.

The second deeply falsified the text: in Act II, Zimmerman has Lucia, in a Tosca-like moment, sneak a knife off her brother’s desk, apparently in preparation for the mayhem of Act III. But if Lucia is already premeditating violence in Act II, the mad scene falls apart—it’s not as “mad” as we might think. (It’s Medea.) This gratuitous insertion makes a hash of the libretto’s carefully orchestrated sequence, as each act progresses, from isolated fragility to desperation to explosion.

The third gesture tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the larger misconceptions that lay behind Dessay’s performance, acclaim for which, both in the press and in the audience, reveals a lurking embarrassment about the “high” style typically, and rightly, associated with this kind of opera. During her mad scene—the scene by which any Lucia will inevitably be judged; a scene that Ms. Dessay considers “the easiest part” of this opera to sing—there was a moment when Dessay stood stock still and simply screamed: a real, shivery, horror-movie scream. This is the kind of thing that makes an impression. On the first night I saw the opera, a woman in back of me murmured to her husband, “Now that’s scary.”

The problem, of course, is that the scariness is already in the text, in the music. We know how hard Donizetti and Cammarano thought about their text, how hard they worked to put their broken heroine’s suffering and dissociation in the music, in the words (or lack of words). That Natalie Dessay and Mary Zimmerman thought that this scene needed the addition of “real” scariness merely reveals the extent to which they neither comprehend nor trust the authors of the work they’re staging. That staging, needless to say, is a hit. Whether it has interest is another matter altogether.

This Issue

November 22, 2007