Lucia di Lammermoor, Donizetti, Metropolitan Opera
Fellow Culture Vulture Walter Karr also has a passion for Lucia. Read his thoughts on this famous opera.
"Horrifying screams were heard coming from the bedroom of the couple. When the door was forced open there stood the bride covered in blood, totally insane with a knife in her hand grinning insanely. Her only words were: "Here, take up your bonny bridegroom." A few weeks later she died. Pass the marshmallows.
This supposed true story of a daughter of a Scottish nobleman who murders her husband on the night of their wedding is stuff nightmares are made of. Sir Walter Scott made a novel of it and Donizetti in turn made an opera of it.
And within this bel canto opera Donizetti included a 'mad scene.' Mad scenes were not new to operas in those days. Even Handel incorporated a mad scene in one of his operas many years prior to "Lucia". What was new was Donizetti's original intention of using an armonica in a tragic mad scene. It gives an eerie atmosphere to the proceedings when it is played behind the mad ravings of Lucia. Interestingly, a mechanical version of the 'glass harp' was invented by none other than Ben Franklin...yes, THAT Ben Franklin.
Beverly Sills performs with an armonia, or variation of the glass harmonica, on her recording of the opera conducted by Julius Rudel. The recording is still available and worth a listen. The Metropolitan Opera has brought it back for the recent productions of this opera to stunning effect, BUT this was just the intention and original idea of Donizetti. He eventually arranged the passages for flute instead for the premiere.
The mad scene over the years unfortunately became a vehicle for sopranos to show off their vocal fireworks. Pity the tenor who must go on for the final act after the soprano has goggled up all the scenery, chorus, orchestra and applause...not to mention her one or two performed encores before he steps on the stage again. One critic reported the lights could be turned out and nothing would be missed afterwards.
It made a star of the young soprano when she made her debut on the Metropolitan Opera stage in New York January 3rd, 1931. During her career she sang 93 performances of "Lucia" at the Met. Her name was Lily Pons. In the early 1950's a soprano named Maria Callas brought back the drama and turned the mad scene back into the tragedy it was meant to be. She sang it as written without fancy vocal embellishments. It worked. Joan Sutherland successfully followed on her heels.
Another outstanding feature of this opera is the sextet. Recorded with Caruso in 1908, the public had to pay $7.00 a record to hear it at home. It became famously know as the 'Seven Dollar Sextet.' It is almost always encored at performances and it's tune is easily recognizable even to those who don't know opera.
Rossini and Bellini had departed the scene and Donizetti was now king of bel canto. Riding on the success of his opera buffo "L'Elisir d'Amore" Donizetti created this drama based upon the Scott novel. Ironically, Donizetti himself would succumb to the same fate as his broken hearted fictional heroine, Lucia. In 1848, having contracted syphilis, just a few years after the death of his wife and three daughters, he died...totally insane."