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.