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
by Roger Parker
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.