Fantastic Charcoal Sketches by Mike Reed
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Fantastic Charcoal Sketches by Mike Reed
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Lucia di Lammermoor’s mad tragedy in Donizetti’s mad life
Lucia de Lammermoor’s popularity rests on its wild third act. But this was to have tragic echoes in the life of its composer, Donizetti
Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor was first performed in Naples in 1835, and has been on and off the boards ever since. While unusually full of memorable tunes, the main reason for its popularity across nearly two centuries, and why audiences still flock to it today, rests on one moment. This is the famous third-act mad scene for the heroine Lucia. Although she loves another, Lucia has been coerced into an arranged marriage, but then stabs her new husband to death on their wedding night; with bloody nightdress and hair in pleasing disarray, she wanders among the horrified wedding guests and sings forth her derangement.
Donizetti, never one to miss a great scenic opportunity, pulled out all the stops. First Lucia is assailed by orchestral themes: some are reminiscences of earlier numbers, but in her disordered state she can respond to them only in agonised vocal fragments. As she retreats into fantasies of a happy union with her true beloved, though, her singing becomes more and more florid; by the end of the scene she has turned into a vocal whirling dervish, streaming forth cascades of vocal display.
What are we to make of this wild excess of singing? A small industry has grown up around Lucia’s madness, with producers and other arbiters of operatic fashion all seeking to tell us what such extravagance might mean. Some remind us that, in the 19th century, madness, both in the real world and in opera, was typically a “female malady”: Lucia’s manic vocalism is another sign of her imprisonment in a cruel, male world. She is trapped in beautiful, ornamental singing just as she is trapped by society at large.
Others find this reading too depressing, and stand it on its head. According to them, Lucia’s flights of vocal fancy are a feminist victory, a proud refusal to obey the rules of convention: her extravagant vocal finale now marks a triumphant release from male authority.
The fact that both interpretations use as evidence exactly the same music suggests that both may reach for too precise a relationship between the notes and their cultural meaning.
The message of the Lucia mad scene is probably best seen as more basic. Once upon a time in opera, elaborate vocal ornament was the province of all opera characters: think of Handel or Rossini, where basses and tenors warble just as frantically as sopranos. But in opera’s Romantic age, florid singing was, like colourful costume, becoming a marker of the feminine. Small wonder, then, that if you contracted the “female malady” your prime symptom was an uncontrollable excess of singing.
Because it makes its effects so starkly and memorably, the Lucia mad scene has had a fascinating afterlife. Around 1880, the Australian soprano Nellie Melba, striving to raise the vocal stakes still further, began to insert an extended cadenza in the middle of the scene: an incredible high-wire vocal act in which the soprano has an “anything-you-can-play-I can-sing-higher” competition with the solo flute, which has been an important foil for Lucia through most of the scene.
This cadenza then became a famous test of vocal daring, and is to this day faithfully reproduced by most Lucias, even though it obviously reflects a style of soprano vocalism much later than Donizetti’s. Much more recently, scholars have tried to reinstate something nearer what the composer originally wrote, and have been helped by an important discovery: the scene as first written had a prominent solo not for the flute but for the glass harmonica, an instrument whose exotic and distinctly eerie timbre had long been associated with the supernatural.
Unfortunately, and as so often in opera, practical difficulties got in the way of art. The resident glass-harmonica player in Naples got into a row with the theatre – he thought he was being underpaid – and, just before the premiere, he picked up his instrument and walked out. Donizetti, as ever pragmatic, crossed out the part and substituted the solo flute. Modern performances often now restore the glass harmonica, which refreshes the scene by giving it a wonderful new colour.
And so, with the help of crazy cadenzas and exotic old instruments, Lucia has survived momentous changes in operatic fashion, ones that might otherwise have made the entire drama seem ridiculous. A very early indication that its violent contrasts were becoming dated occurs in one of the most famous of novelistic opera scenes. In Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, adulterous Emma and her dull husband Charles go to see Lucia di Lammermoor in provincial Rouen.
Flaubert, then a poster boy for literary realism, clearly disapproved of the extravagant, old-fashioned operatic acting. He described the famous second act sextet with all his famous precision of language: “They were all in a row gesticulating, and anger, vengeance, jealousy, terror and stupefaction breathed forth at once from their half-opened mouths. The outraged lover brandished his naked sword; his guipure ruffle rose with jerks to the movements of his chest, and he walked from right to left with long strides, clanking against the boards the silver-gilt spurs of his soft boots, widening out at the ankles.”
But the ridiculous physical exertions on stage become unimportant as Emma Bovary is drawn into the operatic spectacle, in particular into the orbit of the principal tenor: “The mad idea seized her that he was looking at her … She longed to run to his arms, to take refuge in his strength, as in the incarnation of love itself, and to say to him, to cry out, ‘Take me away! carry me with you! Let us go! Thine, thine! All my ardour and all my dreams!’”
The tawdry dramatic details are forgotten as Emma, Lucia-like, constructs an elaborate fantasy about an alternative life. What’s more, the mood generated in her that evening leads to decisions that change her life disastrously and forever.
The final irony about Lucia and its famous scene is that Donizetti’s own last years were spent locked away in a Paris insane asylum, paralysed by syphilis. As befitted the time, contemporaries wrapped his infirmity in layers of romantic narrative. His French publisher left a memoir suggesting that he had been driven insane by an imperious soprano, who had forced him to make damaging changes to his final grand opera. The story has scant basis in fact, but it is even now often repeated, so neatly does it chime with the view that female opera singers, with their famous freedoms, are the enemies of “serious” (male) composers.
Other famous acquaintances were even more elaborate. The poet Heinrich Heine reported a surreal picture: “While his melodies cheer the world with their merry playfulness, he himself, a terrible image of imbecility, sits in a sanatorium near Paris. Only with regard to his appearance has he, until lately, retained some childish consciousness, and had to be carefully attired every day in complete court regalia, his coat adorned with all his decorations; and would thus sit without moving, from early morning until late at night.”
Heine’s fantasy skilfully recyles two German stereotypes about Italian opera: about its lack of seriousness – he calls it “merry playfulness” – and about the readiness of Italian composers (unlike, it is implied, earnest German ones) to please at all costs, to be endlessly waiting for a new commission or for audience applause to call them on stage.
But one last anecdote is the most poignant of all. It recounts that there was just one piece of music that could make any impression on the stricken composer, cause him to raise his head, open his eyes and beat time. It was, of course, the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor.
These operas span four centuries and give a flavour of repertoire’s huge range and variety
Fiona Maddocks, The Guardian
Claudio Monteverdi Mantua, Italy, c1607
With a mythological musician as hero, L’Orfeo ranks as the first great opera. Monteverdi was the “founding father” of operatic form. Euridice dies from a snake bite. The sorrowful Orpheus, through his music, tries to save her from the Underworld. A popular operatic subject (Gluck, Jaques Offenbach, Philip Glass), L’Orfeo is emotional, melancholy and transcendent.
Henry Purcell London, UK, 1689
A lone English operatic success until the 20th century, Dido recounts the tale of the tragic Queen of Carthage and her love for Aeneas, inconveniently en route to found a new Troy. In addition to sailors and witches, Purcell gave us one of the most sublime laments in opera: Dido’s When I Am Laid in Earth.
George Frideric Handel London, UK, 1724
An epic of love and war often considered Handel’s finest work, Giulio Cesare has a richly intricate plot and the bonus of a brilliantly characterised and outrageously seductive Cleopatra (see Glyndebourne’s Opus Arte DVD with the dancing Danielle de Niese as Cleo). Caesar, written for castrato, is often sung by a countertenor. Other good Handel: Rinaldo, Radamisto, Tamerlano, Rodelinda, Ariodante, Alcina.
Handel London, UK, 1738
Opens with one of Handel’s best known arias, Ombra Mai Fu, sung by Serse, King of Persia, in honour of a plane tree and its shade. A plot of jealousy, infidelity and treachery results in a cocktail of bravura music. ENO’s 1992 production by Nicholas Hytner helped put Handel’s operas back on the map.
Christoph Willibald Gluck Vienna, Austria, 1762
Written in Italian, this intense drama was later revised as the French Orphée. A mix of old and new styles, poised at the birth of Romanticism, this is regarded as one of the key operas of the 18th century. Maria Callas made J’ai Perdu Mon Eurydice a stand-alone hit.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Munich, Germany, 1781
Not one of the composer’s best known, this opera seria is treasured by Mozartians as containing some of his greatest operatic music, hinting at glories yet to come. Despite its imperfections as drama and a too neat happy ending, Mozart’s retelling of the story of the King of Crete forced to sacrifice his son has slowly earned its status as a masterpiece.
Mozart Vienna, Austria, 1786
Together with Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte, which make up Mozart’s trio of masterpieces with libretti by Da Ponte, Figaro is for many the perfect opera: a balance of wit, humanity and astounding, glorious music. Others find it too long, and the garden scene dreary. The Queen called it “the one about the [lost] pin”.
Mozart Vienna, Austria, 1791
The monstrous Queen of the Night, the birdcatcher Papageno, lovers, philosophy, Freemasonry – The Magic Flute has it all. The music is ravishing, some of it probably familiar. Its prominent use of dialogue makes it a challenge to stage. Despite appearances, it’s not as easy for children as it may look; wait a while. Mozart died only weeks after completing it.
Gioachino Rossini Rome, Italy, 1816
Pure, inane, fizzing delight, ferociously difficult to sing: The Barber of Seville, written in a fortnight by a composer who had penned 35 operas by the age of 37 then abruptly retired, tops the list of all operatic comedies. It includes the famous Figaro-here, Figaro-there Largo Al Factotum. Check out the Royal Opera House DVD with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato.
Gioachino Rossini Paris, France, 1829
The William Tell overture is one of the most famous pieces of classical music. Yet Rossini’s enormous, final opera, involving the fight for Swiss freedom, remains a rarity – despite thrilling arias and exciting choruses. A BBC Proms performance and a new EMI CD conducted by Antonio Pappano may restore interest.
Vincenzo Bellini Milan, Italy, 1831
Boasting the famous Casta Diva aria, Norma is the ultimate bel canto tragedy about a druid priestess who, secretly, has two children and an erring lover, with catastrophic results. Bellini’s extravagant, melodic operas – Il Pirata, La Sonnambula – provide a musical stepping stone from Rossini to Verdi.
Gaetano Donizetti Milan, Italy, 1832
Frequently performed and a cheerfully reassuring first step into opera, this is the comic tale of the fraudulent quack Dulcamara who dupes the poor, lovesick Nemorino with his “elixir”; melodic, witty, heart-warming and touchingly silly. The exuberant and prolific Donizetti’s sharp humour is at play in the shrewish character of the love object, Adina.
Gaetano Donizetti Naples, Italy, 1835
No one provides a better coloratura “mad scene” – a 19th-century Romantic opera habit – than Donizetti in Lucia, based on Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor. Scott’s novels were all the rage in Europe, with 16 turned into operas by, among others, Bellini, Rossini and Bizet.
Giuseppe Verdi Venice, Italy, 1851
Verdi, one of opera’s greats, had a long career. For many his Egyptian Aida is an ideal first opera. For dramatic intensity, Rigoletto – compact, tuneful, melodramatic – is even better. The hunchback prompts pity when he tries to protect his daughter. It’s never been the same since ENO’s 1982 “Mafioso” staging had the Duke singing La Donna e Mobile at a jukebox in a diner.
Giuseppe Verdi Venice, Italy, 1853
Perhaps Verdi’s most performed work, La Traviata contains all the elements of operatic addiction: a beautiful, consumptive, fallen-woman heroine, grand Parisian party scenes, the travails of love, a troubled father and a deathbed scene, all set to Verdi’s faultless score. Hard to beat.
Giuseppe Verdi Paris, France, 1867
Known in both its French and Italian versions, this enormous five-act work based on Schiller shows Verdi at the height of his powers. Politics, kingship, heresy, adultery and love combine with incomparable pomp and solemnity, with a score to match. The bass role of King Philip II of Spain is one of opera’s loneliest.
Giuseppe Verdi Milan, Italy, 1893
Like Otello (written in a final, brilliant outpouring in 1887), Falstaff – after Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor – is a Verdian favourite among buffs, though some find its quixotic, quick-fire charms less beguiling. Knowledge of the final fugue, celebrating the folly of the human condition (Tutto nel Mondo) is essential to any opera lover’s armament.
Ruggero Leoncavallo Milan, Italy, 1892
Considered the stronger half of the popular “Cav and Pag” double bill, Pagliacci (the clowns) is Leoncavallo’s one surviving hit, usually paired with Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. Pag cleverly uses a commedia dell’arte troupe to enact a verismo tragedy. Top tenors love to sing the broken-hearted clown’s Vesti la Giubba (Put On the Motley).
Giacomo Puccini Turin, Italy, 1896
If Puccini himself cried after composing the final scene of Bohème, one of the most adored of all operas, how can the rest of us resist? Mimi, the Bohemian seamstress of the title, her poet lover Rodolfo and their destitute Parisian friends capture the pains and pleasures of young love in an attic.
Giacomo Puccini Rome, Italy, 1900
Dubbed a “shabby little shocker”, Tosca opens with three crashing orchestral chords and never lets up until the opera-singer heroine, having stabbed the villain Scarpia and watched her artist-lover Cavaradossi die, leaps to her own death. Her Vissi d’arte and Cavaradossi’s E Lucevan le Stelle epitomise opera’s power to stir passion. Famous Toscas: Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Angela Gheorgiu.
Giacomo Puccini Milan, Italy, 1904
Puccini first saw David Belasco’s hit play Madame Butterfly in London in 1900. The teenage Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San) falls in love with an American naval lieutenant in Nagasaki. He abandons her, then returns with a wife. Catastrophe ensues. After a first-night disaster, it became one of the best-loved operas. One Fine Day, the Stars and Stripes music and the Humming Chorus are highlights.
Giacomo Puccini Milan, Rome, 1926
Football fans know Nessun Dorma thanks to Pavarotti and the 1990 World Cup. Puccini’s final opera is about the man-hating Chinese queen Turandot, and Calaf, the man who finally melts her icy heart. When Puccini died leaving the opera incomplete, it was finished by a composer friend, Alfano. Others have also tried, but Alfano’s is the version commonly used.
Ludwig van Beethoven Vienna, Austria, 1805
Written to a backdrop of revolution, Beethoven’s only opera is a hymn to freedom and marital love. Leonora dresses as a man, Fidelio, to rescue her husband Florestan from imprisonment. The spoken dialogue and huge orchestra present performance challenges but the rewards – the Mir ist So Wunderbar ensemble, the Prisoners’ choruses, Florestan’s cry of “Gott!” – are unrivalled.
Carl Maria von Weber Berlin, Germany, 1821
The title of this opera translates as The Marksman and it is set in a Bohemian forest during the 30 years war. It concerns the shooting trials of young hunters to win their lovers. The hero Max transgresses by using “free” magic bullets. Good and evil struggle in a vivid, tuneful display of high German Romanticism. Not often staged. Catch it when it is.
Richard Wagner Weimar, Germany, 1850
Wagner’s last “early” work (after Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser) before his mature masterpieces. This is perhaps the last great Romantic opera, rich with symbolism, myth, taboo: the innocent Elsa of Brabant is accused of murdering her brother. A knight in shining armour arrives in a swan-drawn boat. He will help her so long as she doesn’t ask his name. She does. You can guess what it is.
Richard Wagner Munich, Germany, 1865
The ultimate, transcendent, no-holds-barred “love in death” experience, ending with Isolde’s Liebestod. As usual, Wagner wrote his own libretto. Isolde is betrothed to King Mark. After a mix-up, she and Tristan drink a love potion and fall cataclysmically in love. This is “extreme opera”, full of ecstatic thrills in very slow motion, but worth every note. Be prepared.
Richard Wagner Munich, Germany, 1868
Written over two decades, The Mastersingers of Nuremberg is Wagner’s only “comic” opera, full of generous humanity, especially in the great figure of the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs. The plot revolves around a song contest, and celebrates all art, especially German. Meistersinger may have been Hitler’s favourite but don’t be deterred. The music is uplifting, the choruses magnificent.
Richard Wagner Bayreuth, Germany, 1876
The Ring Cycle, a pinnacle of the genre, consists of four operas: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdammerung – which last about 15 hours in total and took Wagner 28 years to write. The story of gold, gods, giants, dragons, once you sort it all out, is really an epic exploration of man’s desire, greed and folly. By any reckoning The Ring is among the mightiest single monuments of art created by one person.
Franz Lehár Vienna, Austria, 1905
Together with Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus, Lehár’s Die Lustige Witwe sums up the joys of Viennese operetta: infectiously, waltzingly melodic, with dinners chez Maxim, dancing girls and a glimpse of Balkan Europe in the last days of old aristocracy. The eponymous widow, Hanna Glawari, is not only merry but fabulously rich. Too much fun for some tastes.
Richard Strauss Dresden, Germany, 1905
Still considered shocking by some, and certainly startling, Salome, after Wilde’s play, leads the way to modern opera: its radical harmonies, its vocal challenges and its violent biblical story revisited in the age of Freud. Salome desires John the Baptist. After dancing naked for Herod, she only gets his head but that’s enough.
Richard Strauss Dresden, Germany, 1911
The title – The Knight of the Rose – gives no hint as to why this enormous, voluptuous, waltz-laden operatic concoction has become a favourite of connoisseurs. In this bitter-sweet comedy an older woman (the Marschallin) sees she must send her young lover into the arms of another. The final trio sends opera-buffs into an ultimate swoon.
Hector Berlioz Paris, France 1863 & 1890
Opera hardly comes more grand than Berlioz’s five-act retelling of Virgil’s Aeneid: 22 roles, a huge orchestra, large chorus, ballet, battles, bloodshed and high emotion. Immensely expensive to stage, The Trojans is sometimes split across two evenings. Witness the fall of Troy and the tragic love of Didon and Enée in full operatic Technicolor. Never pass up a chance to see it.
Georges Bizet Paris, France, 1875
Is there an opera more popular, sexy, scandalous or with better tunes? The Gypsy dancer at the cigarette factory who breaks hearts and meets her doom outside the bullring offers an ideal start to opera. It’s long, but the action is thrilling, the music infectious. Don José’s Flower Song, the Toreador Song and Carmen’s Habanera are the best known of the many spectacular set pieces.
Jules Massenet Paris, France, 1884
The prolific and melodic Massenet is best known today for Manon, a linchpin of French 19th-century opera (from Abbé Prévost’s novel Manon Lescaut, also set by Puccini). The heroine can’t choose between love and money, until too late. Confusingly called an opéra comique because it has spoken dialogue, its subject is tragic.
Claude Debussy Paris, France, 1902
This sensuous, Symbolist tragedy in 12 tableaux marks a radical departure: instead of arias and set pieces, the text is declaimed, inspired by Wagner, over an ever-moving orchestration. The story of the frail Mélisande and her adulterous love for her brother-in-law is a mix of reality and interior mystery. An acquired taste – but well worth acquiring.
Bedrich Smetana Prague, Czech Repulbic, 1866
Smetana took several attempts to get his gentle, catchily tuneful comedy right. Folk-inspired dances, a drinking song and a story of young lovers thwarted by an official betrothal make this an engaging Czech tale of village life. That said, for today’s tastes the stammering simpleton Vasek, butt of village humour, may be seen as too mean a characterisation for comfort.
Modest Mussorgsky St Petersburg, Russia, 1874
Experts still argue over which version of Mussorgsky’s historical epic is definitive. The reluctant Boris, filled with foreboding and guilt for a murder, is appointed tsar. The people grow hungry and rebellious. Pretenders vie for the throne. Boris becomes deranged, the soul of Russia – expressed through anguished choruses – troubled. This is one of the Russian operatic greats.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Moscow, Russia, 1879
Among the most intimate and heart-rending of operas, this setting of Pushkin’s verse tale has a spectacular birthday ball, a duel and, early on, the Letter Scene, in which the impetuous young Tatyana pours out her heart to the cold Onegin. Tchaikovsky’s understanding of the human heart is all-encompassing, his music full of warmth and pathos.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky St Petersburg, Russia, 1890
After Pushkin’s story, complete with two suicides and a ghost, the former gambler of the title, an old woman now close to death, holds the secret of winning at cards. Her granddaughter Lisa falls in love with a young officer, Hermann, who is desperate to learn that secret. A hot-blooded thriller set to impassioned music.
Dmitri Shostakovich Moscow, Russia, 1934
Attacked in a Pravda article as being “chaos instead of music”, Lady Macbeth was forgotten until the 1960s, but its vital importance to modern opera is now recognised. While her husband is away, the bored, frustrated Katerina Izmailova murders her father-in-law and takes a lover. A tragic soap opera unfolds. Only a remote connection with Shakespeare.
Sergei Prokofiev Moscow, Russia, 1944
Oppressed by the Soviet authorities as so often in his career, Prokofiev had to add heroic choruses and marches to satisfy his political overlords, and never lived to hear a complete performance of his opera in five acts, based on Tolstoy’s epic novel. Despite the attractions of The Fiery Angel, and the comic Love for Three Oranges, this is his most successful opera.
Igor Stravinsky Venice, Italy, 1951
To a libretto by WH Auden and Chester Kallman, Stravinsky’s opera is inspired by William Hogarth’s engravings. Tom Rakewell falls under the spell of Nick Shadow, and opts for a sybaritic life of easy riches. But Nick is the devil. Tom ends up penniless and mad in Bedlam. Watch the DVD of Glyndebourne’s 1975 staging with sets by David Hockney.
Leoš Janáček Brno, Czech Republic, 1904
Together with Katja Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen and The Makropoulos Case, Jenůfa has been restored to the mainstream repertoire. Janáček’s singular musical style and piercing understanding of his female heroines, who face shocking dilemmas, has struck a chord today. In Jenůfa, a child is born in secret; a stepmother (Kostelnička) fearing scandal, drowns the baby. Guilt rips through a Czech village community.
Béla Bartók Budapest, Hungary, 1918
Chilling and enigmatic, Bluebeard is a psycho-drama for two voices about a lonely man who brings home his new bride, Judith, but will not reveal his past. She demands that he unlock the doors of his castle. Blood, money, a lake of tears and other wives lurk behind them. The score is ravishing, the impact disturbing.
Alban Berg Berlin, Germany, 1925
The subject matter – based on Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck about a victimised soldier – is brutal, dark and modernist in mood. Yet Berg’s score glitters with a warmth and lyricism, which has established it as a masterpiece of the early avant garde. In 2001, Birmingham Opera Company mounted a community version in a warehouse, renaming it Votzek; it was a sellout, its story instantly comprehensible.
George Gershwin New York, US, 1935
Hailed as a true American opera, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, the plot is about the crippled Porgy and his Bess in the poor American deep south. Every folk-jazz inspired number is a hit: A Woman is a Sometime Thing, Leavin’ for the Promised Land, Bess, You is My Woman Now and, best known of all, Summertime. Confused issues of racism linger.
Benjamin Britten London, UK, 1945
Ranked by many as one of the best operas of the 20th century, Britten’s tale of the violent social-outcast fisherman, taken from George Crabbe’s poem The Borough, is heart-rending and majestic. The orchestral Sea Interludes are frequently heard separately as concert pieces. The title role was created for Britten’s partner, tenor Peter Pears.
Benjamin Britten Venice, Italy, 1954
It’s hard to choose a second representative Britten opera, from the equally enjoyable Billy Budd, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Albert Herring or Death in Venice. But his setting of Henry James’s ghost tale, The Turn of the Screw, about a governess, the two children in her care and two dead servants, makes this chamber opera one of the most dramatically appealing. It also makes you think twice about seeing and believing.
Michael Tippett Coventry, UK 1962
Tippett’s operas to his own libretti – including Midsummer Marriage and The Knot Garden – haven’t yet found their way back into fashion but there’s some exquisite music; their time will come. His retelling of the tragedy of Priam, King of Troy, is intense, violent, poignant and highly original.
György Ligeti Stockholm, Sweden, 1978
Opening with a blast of four car horns, Ligeti’s farce is mercurial, fast moving and eclectic. The Grand Macabre announces that at midnight the world will end. When the time arrives, no one is quite sure whether Armageddon has occurred or not so they party on, accepting there’s no escape from death.
Here’s a synopsis to get you excited ahead of time about seeing Lucia. Hurry and get your tickets today if you haven’t yet! To order, call the Ticket Office at 612-333-6669 Mon.-Fri., 9am-6pm.
Scene one – the grounds Enrico expresses to Normanno his deep concern. His position as Lord Keeper of Lammermoor is a tenuous one, and the ousting of its previous owners has made a bitter enemy of Edgardo, the last surviving heir. The political tide of Scotland alternates between Catholic and Protestant leaders, again putting his seemingly powerful situation at risk. Enrico has arranged a marriage between his sister, Lucia, and Arturo, a union that can only improve his status. Raimondo, the chaplain, cautions that she is not ready to love, citing her grief over her mother’s recent death. Normanno counters that she’s hardly grieving but full of ardor – she is in love with another man, one who saved her from a rushing bull. She has since seen him every day at dawn. Though his identity is not known, Normanno suspects it is in fact Edgardo. Enrico is furious at the news – Edgardo will pay for this insult with his own blood.
Scene two – the fountain Lucia waits with Alisa for the arrival of Edgardo. She tells her companion of the mysterious lore that surrounds the fountain – it was there that a Ravenswood, burning with jealousy, stabbed his beloved. She fell into the waters and remains there still. Her ghost is said to haunt the fountain and once tried to speak to Lucia. Alisa advises that only peril can follow such an experience and encourages her friend to forget Edgardo. Lucia cannot – he is her only happiness in a world filled with tears. Alisa withdraws, and Edgardo appears. In the wake of Scotland’s political turmoil he has been called to France. He plans to extend to Enrico his hand in peace and ask for her hand in return, but Lucia fears her brother’s wrath. They exchange rings as a token of their secret bond, and Edgardo promises to write while he is away.
Scene one – the chamber Several months have passed with no word from Edgardo. Lucia reluctantly has agreed to marry Arturo, and preparations are being made for the ceremony. Normanno confirms with Enrico that he has been able to intercept every one of Edgardo’s letters, and in their place a forgery has been produced. When Lucia is presented with the fake letter, she faints after reading its contents – Edgardo has taken up with another woman and no longer loves her. Enrico berates his sister for pledging her faith to such a vile seducer and betraying her family’s honor. Raimondo provides further evidence of Edgardo’s abandonment – the chaplain has seen to it that every one of her letters reached him, yet there has been no reply until this day. Raimondo encourages Lucia to resign herself to the union.
Scene two – the reception Wedding guests celebrate the impending nuptials. As Arturo is received, Enrico assures him of Lucia’s willingness to marry and that he should not be discouraged by her sorrow, which is clearly the result of her mother’s passing. As Lucia is presented to her bridegroom, Enrico berates her mercilessly in a series of asides. She begrudgingly signs the wedding contract, and moments later Edgardo bursts into the room. Lucia swoons and everyone is filled with shock and remorse – like a wilting rose, she hovers between life and death. Believing that Lucia still loves him, Edgardo is stunned when shown the marriage contract bearing her signature. In despair he offers his own life, but Enrico orders him out.
Scene one – the tower Alone in the spare remains of his family’s estate, Edgardo rues his dismal fate as a storm rages outside. Enrico pays a return visit, needling him with details of the wedding ceremony and the reminder that Arturo and Lucia are at this very moment consummating their wedding vows. He then challenges Edgardo to a duel, to which the latter heartily agrees – he had promised on his father’s grave to avenge the family name.
Scene two – the party The wedding festivities are interrupted by news from a badly shaken Raimondo. He heard screams from the bridal chamber and opening the door, found Arturo in a pool of blood with a wide-eyed Lucia clutching the knife that killed him. Lucia stumbles before the guests, obviously delirious, looking for Edgardo. Everyone is horrified by the tragic outcome of the day.
Scene three – the tombs Edgardo waits for the duel’s appointed hour, intending to surrender himself on Enrico’s sword. He soon learns of the prior evening’s calamity and is told that Lucia has gone insane. Broken by the news, Edgardo takes his own life.
All about Donizetti’s masterpiece:
In the wake of Rossini’s retirement and Bellini’s death only three days before its premiere, Lucia di Lammermoor is the work that catapulted Donizetti’s international recognition as a composer of first rank. Quickly staged in Vienna, Madrid, Paris, London, New Orleans and New York, Lucia has survived the test of time, and unlike many of its bel canto bretheren, has never fallen out of the international repertory.
The novels of Sir Walter Scott were readily taken up by Romantic composers – in fact, he’s among the top ten authors whose novels have received operatic treatment. The Bride of Lammermoor had already been set several times before Donizetti got his hands on it. To condense the rather lengthy book into a usable form, he and his librettist, Salvadore Cammarano, likely used for guidance Michele Carafa’s opera, Le nozze di Lammermoor, which premiered in Paris just six years before. Carafa had reduced the character list substantially, a gesture Donizetti and Cammarano took further by telescoping Lucy Ashton’s mother, father, and two brothers into a single adversary, Enrico. Among the 20 or so others to go were Edgardo’s chattering, yet good-natured, valet, Caleb Balderstone, and Craigengelt, a not-so-well intentioned sea captain, Bucklaw’s ally with a hidden agenda. Normanno is retained (inspired by Norman the parksman), as is the good-hearted Reverend Bide-the-Bent (renamed Raimondo), and Frank Hayston, Lord of Bucklaw survives reasonably intact as Arturo. Blind Alice, an old hermitic woman with second sight and mystical ways, is turned into Alisa, Lucia’s rather opaque confidante. The story’s final moments had to be fixed as well. Edgar’s mysterious disappearance (presumably by quicksand) on his way to a duel with Lucy’s brother Sholto was transformed into a grand suicide scene at the tomb of the Ravenswoods, a bit more appropriate to the tastes of early 19th-century Neapolitans.
Forbidden desire, family rivalry and the death of two lovers seems reminiscent of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Yet, though the Bard was popular among Romantic writers, Scott’s tale was inspired by an actual event, the marriage of Janet Dalrymple and David Dunbar. The unfolding of their story is entrenched in the politics of the day. Seventeenth-century England and Scotland were embroiled in their own civil war over the question of faith. The face-off was within James II’s family, James being staunchly Catholic, his daughters being committed to Protestantism. Though each daughter ruled in turn as Mary II and Anne I, exiled descendants from James’s second marriage always posed a Catholic threat.
The political turmoil afforded the rise of one revolutionary, William Dalrymple, who through legal trickery and political opportunism acquired vast estates and a peerage. His wife, the notorious Dame Margaret Ross Dalrymple, was even more ambitious. To further improve their lot, she chose the perfect husband for her daughter. Unfortunately he was not the one she loved, a certain Lord Rutherford, who, though from solid stock, was regarded by mother Dalrymple as genetically inferior, and with strong Jacobite sympathies, yesterday’s news. The couple secretly had pledged their fidelity by splitting a gold coin, a token the mother, in a heated argument with Rutherford, demanded to be returned upon Janet’s betrothal to Dunbar.
The incident of their wedding night is relayed in both novel and opera, yet there is a hint of mystery to the actual events. The couple was locked in the bridal chamber by the best man (as custom prescribed), but while the guests continued the party, commotion was heard from within. Inside was found a critically wounded Dunbar with Janet, cowering in the corner, supposedly howling “So you have tak’ your bonny bridegroom.” Dunbar survived his injuries (as he does in Scott’s novel) and amazingly remained with his bride for another two weeks, after which she died from her mental defect. He was tight-lipped about the whole affair, threatening to duel any man who dared broach the subject. It was suspected that Rutherford had somehow entered the bridal chamber and had executed the bloody deed himself.
Scott knew the story from his mother (also a Rutherford) was careful to change the names and move the locale. A major variant was to have Lucy’s lover, Edgar Ravenswood, be the sole survivor of a family ruined by her father. He also invented the event of their first meeting: she and her father are saved from a rushing bull by Edgar, then taken to the craggy remnants of his estate (a sparsely furnished tower on an ocean cliff, the very edge of his former Ravenswood estates) to escape a brewing storm. Edgar is still agitated about the dispossession of his family and his father’s dying wish to wreck havoc on the Ashtons, but his anger is somehow tempered by Lucy’s grace and beauty. Sir William warms to the young man, and events may have turned out for the better if it had not been for the mother, Lady Margaret Douglas Ashton, an especially shrewish woman. She dominates the novel in a singular plight to keep the lovers apart and to arrange a marriage of her choosing. Sadly, something of her daunting, imperious nature is lost in the composite character of the opera’s Enrico. Also lost is much of the novel’s gothic flavor, the macabre character of Old Alice (and later, her ghost), the three village hags, whose lunacy set the tone for Lucy’s eventual mental breakdown, and the wispy disappearance of Edgar while riding on horseback to duel Lucy’s brother Sholto. Scott’s novel is chock full of gothic themes – persecution, disinheritance, ancestral curses – and though his descriptiveness borders on ponderous and overblown, his imagery is pregnant with meaning: the sexual innuendo inherent in Lucy’s encounter with the wild bull, the raven shot dead at Lucy’s feet (splattering her white dress with blood) moments after her secret betrothal to Edgar, a fountain-murder myth where a nymph is destroyed as a result of her lover’s lack of faith, and the omnipresent fatalism of the three old women (presumably a reference to the fate-weaving Norns of Norse mythology as well as a nod to Shakespeare). Scott’s novel is a surprising example of feminine will, from the heady domination of Lady Ashton’s iron grasp over the family to Lucy’s ability to lash out with bloody vengeance when left with no other recourse.
Donizetti and Cammarano were still careful to include a few stylish elements, a ghostly presence, a storm and, of course, Lucia’s famously popular mad scene. Both works have that brooding flavor indigenous to Romanticism – darkly morose, rather unsympathetic individuals under the control of more sinister forces, who can do nothing but rant and rave – traits not found in the drama’s parallel journey as one of “star-crossed love.” Where Shakespeare offers his protagonists optimism and a plan for escape (though ultimately foiled by poor timing), there is no such hope for Lucia and Edgardo, their doleful path is trod by misery and madness to an especially horrific end.
Salvadore Cammarano and the Italian Romantic Libretto
Salvadore Cammarano was a key figure of the maturing Romantic period, continuing the bridge built by his predecessors from 18th-century opera seria to the full blown romantic melodrama of the primo ottocento (1800–1850). His career ran parallel to that of Gaetano Donizetti, Saverio Mercadante and Giovanni Pacini, and ended at the height of Giuseppe Verdi’s middle period. Having worked with all of these composers, he was a part of the fundamental changes being made in musical structure and dramatic conception in these works of the bel canto period.
Though the sterner side of bel canto grew out of opera seria of the previous century, the contrast between the two is pronounced. Opera seria typically involved a historical or mythical subject with its noble characters singing a rapid succession of arias, with virtually no ensembles, and nearly always with a happy ending. Castrati were featured in many of the principal roles, and most of the virtuosic music was allotted to them. As the century drew to a close, castrati were a dying breed, and economies of scale forced state-run opera companies to fuse their comic and serious troupes into one. Consequently, elements of comic opera found their way into serious works, with an emphasis on greater truth and a focus on more genuine characters through the incorporation of ensembles in introductions and finales. The restrained, carefully controlled and methodical shape of 18th-century libretti gave way to increased theatricality, which manifested itself into greater violence both on- and offstage (death in full view of the audience was taboo during most of the 18th century). Librettists were drawn to literature that spotlighted these conflicts, both of past eras, namely works of Shakespeare and Voltaire, as well as new trends in contemporary literature.
This focus on theatricality also required the evolution of the aria. In the 18th century, the “exit aria” typically was constructed in da capo form: melodic material is offered, contrasting material is then sung, followed by a reprise (and variation) of the first music. By the early 19th century the aria had been doubled and expanded into a cavatina, preceded by a scena, declamatory recitative or arioso setting up a particular situation, followed by a slower cantabile section given to contemplation. This is interrupted by a bridge passage, consisting dramatically of external news from another character or chorus, followed by a fast moving cabaletta, showing off great virtuosity and affirming the singer’s resolve. As heightened emotions became the focal point of these new trends, singers required greater and more varied expository situations in which to showcase their entire emotional palette.
Cammarano rose to the task, having theater in his blood. His grandfather Vincenzo was a successful actor of the commedia dell’arte variety – his Pulcinella typically brought the house down. Vincenzo’s son Filippo followed in his father’s footsteps, also portraying Pulcinella and becoming known for his translations of Carlo Goldoni’s plays and his own opera libretti. Another son and Salvadore’s father, Giuseppe, was a painter, talented enough to be engaged as a scenic designer, and by royal command, charged with decorating the interior of the new Teatro San Carlo, including the tempera on the ceiling that still exists today.
Salvadore honored his artistic family’s traditions, first as a painter, then as a writer. His plays won recognition in the 1820s, and by 1832 he had fallen into a fortuitous situation. His father used his influence at the San Carlo, Naples’ premiere theater, to get Salvadore hired as a concertatore, the approximate combination of the modern director and stage manager. This was a quick jump to the position of poeta concertatore, as librettists typically were required to stage the operas for which they wrote the text. At that time the theater’s poet was also responsible for touching up existing libretti as well as supplying new ones and obtaining clearance from the censors, always a delicate issue in those days.
Cammarano was fortunate on two fronts. At that time Naples did not enjoy the talents of a singular quality librettist in the same manner as Milan had with Felice Romani (Bellini’s chief artistic partner) and Venice with Gaetano Rossi (of Semiramide fame, among others), thus competition was minimal. His second stroke of good luck was a collaboration with Gaetano Donizetti and their first work together, Lucia di Lammermoor. They were ideally suited to one another and went on the produce further works, most notably Roberto Devereux and Maria de Rudenz. It was with Donizetti that Cammarano found his true voice, and Lucia served as a perfect vehicle for his highly demonstrative inclinations. By this point art and literature were firmly entrenched in the Romantic movement.
Immutably affixed to the operatic genre, Romanticism is a hazy concept to pin down by its very nature. Looking away from the rationality of 18th-century Enlightenment, the Romantic age looked inward to the irrational mind through the lens of imagination and with it, laid wake to the minefield of heightened emotion, melancholy, futility and madness. It also celebrated spontaneity, cultivation of artistic creativity, political independence and manifestations of a new consciousness with the tenuous hope of creating a new world. Romanticism is obsessed with moonlight, shadows and the supernatural, with dreams and sleepwalking, and with storms and peril. Man and Woman may be depicted at the mercy of overwhelming natural forces, with heroism appearing pointless, love seemingly impossible and an ideal union unrealizable this side of the grave. In this dark pale, protagonists are frustrated by their inability to act, often living on the edge of the law and society but on the right side of justice.
Sir Walter Scott landed feet first amidst these new trends, influenced by his translations of Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”) predecessors Schiller and Goethe (whose own Werther presaged the Romantic “Byronic Hero”). By the 1820s his own works were in translation around Europe and his monumental, yet realistic characters made an easy transition onto the stage – many of his novels were turned into operas over and over again. Though his plotting may be suspect, he had a knack for minutely descriptive atmospheric settings drawn deep from Scotland’s violent past, clouded by mysterious and metaphysical occurrences.
Cammarano was intrigued by Scott’s elaborate settings (the librettist’s works were likewise detailed with intricate stage directions, a tendency that resulted from his early career as a painter), but his main attraction was the variety of strong situations the novelist presented and his penchant for the macabre. In fact, Scott’s flair for gothic horror only spurred the librettist’s tempestuous creativity even further. In the novel, characters dissipate rather nonchalantly – Lucy mutters only a few words in her delirium, Edgar simply vanishes into thin air, and Bucklaw, only wounded, won’t utter a single word about his frightful wedding night. Cammarano chose to heighten the dramatic effect by killing off Lucia’s bridegroom, and crafted a textually rich mad scene for Lucia, whose fragility gains an almost Ophelia-like spirituality. He masterfully writes a gripping suicide aria for Edgardo, turning all attention on him (rather than the heroine and title character) for the opera’s closing scene. New iconography made its way into the production values – the ruined gothic castle (Wolf’s Crag), the graveyard (Edgardo’s final scene), moonlight (at the well for Lucia’s ghostly visitation), the obligatory storm (for Enrico and Edgardo’s meeting at the top of Act III) and the presence of wild, uncontrollable natural forces (Lucia’s offstage encounter with the bull).
The complexities of Romantic melodrama often required a fair amount of information before the curtain even rose – most of Cammarano’s contemporaries wrote substantial prefaces to their works whose plots began to push the limits of credibility. Cammarano was skillful enough to weave into his works everything the audience would need to know – his opening number for Lucia neatly relays the basic facts: the near ruin of her family, the imposed marriage, Lucia’s secret lover and how he saved her. Another fine example is Cammarano’s libretto for Verdi’s Il trovatore (1853), in which the rather convoluted events that precede the story are relayed in a concisely delivered tale told by a subsidiary character. Still, aspects of his story – the separation at birth of now-rival brothers and the throwing of the wrong baby into the execution bonfire – pushed the boundaries a bit. It may have been fortunate that Cammarano died just before finishing the libretto, for seeds of change were in the air. Verdi would demand greater dramatic truth in his later works, and Realism, with its pursuit of genre scenes and common people, had taken hold in the arts and would soon be explored operatically by Italian verismo and French composers of the latter part of the 19th century.
b Bergamo, November 29, 1797; d Bergamo, April 8, 1848
With nearly 70 operas to his credit, Gaetano Donizetti was the leading Italian composer in the decade between Vincenzo Bellini’s death and the ascent of Giuseppe Verdi. Donizetti was born in the northern Italian city of Bergamo to an impoverished family. After showing some musical talent, he was enrolled in the town’s Lezioni Caritatevoli where he had the good fortune to study with Giovanni Simone Mayr, maestro di cappella at Santa Maria Maggiore. Originally from Bavaria, Mayr was a successful composer in Italy during the era preceding Rossini’s rise to fame, with dozens of operas to his credit. Though offered many prestigious appointments throughout Europe, Mayr remained loyal to his adopted community and greatly enhanced the local musical institutions. Donizetti arrived at a time when Mayr was writing his greatest operas, and his impression on the younger composer was pronounced. Throughout his life, Donizetti regarded him as a second father, though he would outlive his master by only three years.
When it came time, Donizetti furthered his education at the Accademia Filarmonica in Bologna (shadowing Rossini, who had once studied there). He had already penned several short operas before receiving his first commission in 1818 from the Teatro San Luca in Venice – this was Enrico di Borgogna to a libretto by Bartolomeo Merelli. (In later years, as impresario of La Scala, Merelli was instrumental in the beginnings of Verdi’s career.) Further works were produced in Venice, but Donizetti returned to Bergamo for a few years of relative inactivity. A letter of introduction from Mayr to poet Jacopo Ferretti led Donizetti to Rome, where in 1822 he would have his first unequivocal success, Zoraide di Grenata. His career was just getting started.
Later that year Donizetti settled in Naples and used it as a base for the next 16 years. He arrived just as Rossini was finishing his seven-year contract with the royal theaters. Like Rossini he had the ability to work at the increasingly rapid pace demanded by the Italian theater industry and was able to produce three to four operas a year for most of his life.
Many remain timeless gems. L’elisir d’amore (1832), La fille du régiment (1840) and Don Pasquale (1843) demonstrated his expert handling of lighter subjects. Lucrezia Borgia (1833), Gemma di Vergy (1834), Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), Maria de Rudenz (1838) and Maria Padilla (1841) displayed the composer’s mastery of the Italian melodrama fueled by impassioned and unrestrained literature of the Romantic period. His influence on Verdi cannot be underestimated.
Donizetti’s success in dealing with both comic and tragic settings was due in part to his own manic depressive personality. Well acquainted with personal misfortune, Donizetti lost in the span of eight years his mother, father, two infant sons, an infant daughter and Virginia Vasselli, his wife of seven years. He never truly recuperated after her death, locking the door to her room and refusing to utter her name again. His melancholia may have been induced by early symptoms of syphilis, which he contracted as a young man. It may have also been brought on by the responsibility he felt for harboring the disease that likely cost him his wife and children.
Donizetti made his Paris debut in 1835 with Marino Faliero at the Théâtre Italien and later premiered Les martyrs (1840) at the Paris Opéra. A French translation of Lucia made his name a household word, and in 1840 the composer captivated audiences with La favorite, which became hugely popular throughout Europe and North America. One of his very last works for the stage, Dom Sébastien (1843), was cast in the mold of French grand opéra and was extremely well-received.
The composer had hoped to assume Niccolò Zingarelli’s post as director of the Naples Conservatory, but when the 85-year-old composer died in 1837, Donizetti’s considerable musical contribution to the city was overlooked. Preference was given to a lesser composer, Saverio Mercadante, chiefly because he was a native Neapolitan. After his brief stint in Paris, Donizetti turned toward the Austrian state, where he became music director of the imperial theaters. Two of his final works had their premiere at Vienna’s principal venue, the Kärntnertortheater: Linda di Chamounix (1842) and Maria di Rohan (1843). After the success of Linda, he was appointed Composer to the Austrian Court, a position Mozart had held a half century before.
By 1845, symptoms of his illness had become incapacitating, and his erratic behavior could no longer be excused by overwork. With his family’s intervention Donizetti was placed in a French sanitarium at Ivry for 17 months, then transferred to a Paris apartment. There he was regularly visited by musicians and colleagues, including Verdi, but by this point he was paralyzed, disoriented and rarely spoke. In September 1847, friends arranged his return to Bergamo, where he passed his final days at the home of a wealthy patroness.