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Operapedia: Lucia di Lammermoor 

Henry Stewart is simply mad about Donizetti’s bel canto tragedy.

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First Performances

The opera was first performed in Naples on September 26, 1835. Almost four years later, it had its premiere in Paris, in a French translation, as Lucie de Lammermoor; Donizetti himself altered the music to fit the new libretto. Lucie received its first Opéra de Paris performance in 1846, with the sensational tenor from the world premiere—Gilbert Duprez, the first to sing high Cs from the chest. The U.S. also first heard the opera as Lucie, in New Orleans in 1841. The Lucie craze was brief, however; nowadays, the opera is usually performed in Italian.

The Basics

A man wants his sister to marry for money, to shore up the family’s fortunes, but she wants to marry for love. She does marry the rich guy, but then kills him and dies of grief; the man she loved stabs himself.

 

The Plot Thickens

The libretto was adapted from an 1819 novel by Walter Scott, The Bride of Lammermoor, based on a real story from the seventeenth century. It had previously been adapted by lesser librettists for now-forgotten composers. For Donizetti, it was adapted by Salvadore Cammarano, who would write several librettos for Verdi, including the much-derided Il Trovatore. Lucia was written at a time of European interest in Scotland: Rossini adapted Scott’s Lady of the Lake in 1819; Donizetti adapted the story of Mary Queen of Scots in 1835. Composers from Meyerbeer to Bizet set operas in Scotland; Verdi set Macbeth there in 1847. 

 
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Something Completely Different

“The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met” closes Disney’s 1946 omnibus feature, Make Mine Music. Nelson Eddy provides all the voices in the fifteen-minute short, about a marine mammal whose three pituitary glands somehow produce three fachs. He performs three parts of the Lucia sextet—tenor, baritone and bass—for a New York impresario at sea (who little resembles the Met’s then-general director, Edward Johnson), before he fantasizes about singing it at the Met. This reverie—with scenes from Tristan, Mefistofele and others—ends when the impresario, believing human singers to be trapped inside, à la Jonah, harpoons the whale, who dies. In other words, classic Disney!

 

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Surprise Showstopper

In Lucia’s Act I aria “Regnava nel silenzio,” she tells of her encounter with a ghost, which her maid interprets as an ill omen for her budding romance with Edgardo. Its haunted melancholy is beguiling, perfectly suited to Maria Callas’s brunette tone. That mood is exploited in Beetlejuice: Winona Ryder listens to a brighter-voiced, uncredited soprano singing “Regnava” as, wearing a black veil, she drafts a suicide note. The scene is brooding and full of feeling, yet also a bit self-consciously over-the-top—not unlike opera itself, often. The movie shares plot points with Lucia, including family feuds and a forced marriage, though Beetlejuice has a happier ending, free of suicides and full of Harry Belafonte.
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In Pop Culture

In Gaslight, Ingrid Bergman’s aunt, a diva who cherished Lucia, is murdered; later, Bergman’s character sings “Verranno a te sull’aure,” the duet with Edgardo. The movie’s story, in which Bergman is deliberately driven mad, echoes Lucia’s madness (depicted in the iconic mad scene, in which she duets with a flute, “a heavenly harmony” the characters can’t hear—as though opera itself were nuts!). “As [Bergman] puts it early in the film, she ‘has no voice’ when she sings,” philosopher Stanley Cavell writes in the afterword to Between Opera and Cinema. But “at the end, her lucidly deranged outpouring to her husband, exposed as the murderer, demonstrates to him that the woman he has silenced is capable of a full aria of histrionic words and deeds.”

Where It Is This Season

Nineteen productions have been announced through November, including a new one this month at La Fenice, in Venice.

 

Reactions

“Donizetti himself … three days after the première, was in a rare state of excited exaltation.… ‘It pleased, and it pleased very much, if I am to believe in the applause and the compliments I received. I was called out many times, the singers even more often. His Majesty’s brother Leopoldo, who was there, and who applauded, paid me the most flattering compliments,’” Herbert Weinstock wrote in his 1963 book Donizetti, adding that Lucia “very quickly became one of the most universally popular operas of the nineteenth century. It has retained some of that widespread affection to this day.” But not quite to this day; in 2015–16, it was the twenty-sixth most-performed opera in the world, below Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore.  

 

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Hit Tune

The sextet near the end of Act II, in which Lucia’s true love, Edgardo, crashes her wedding to Arturo, is glorious, expertly arranging numerous voice-types, emotions and dramas into a whole that’s fine like crystal and as thrillingly fragile—as if it would shatter should any piece slip. It’s also frequently employed in popular culture; on a YouTube clip of the Met’s 2011 production, commenters reveal where they first heard the music—the Three Stooges, The Money Pit, Grand Theft Auto III. It’s even in The Departed, as Jack Nicholson’s ringtone, and it appears in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, preceding a reunion between lovers during the subsequent intermission.

 

The Performance We Wish We’d Seen

Maria Callas sang Lucia at the Met on December 3, 1956, five weeks into her first season there—first as Norma, with Tosca in between. “Callas took Lucia from the high trapeze of operatic acrobatics and put her back on stage as a potent dramatic figure of Donizetti’s musical imagination,” critic Irving Kolodin wrote. “This may be remembered when it is forgotten that no previous singer in the Met’s long history has sung Lucia, Tosca and Norma in a career, let alone a season.” Of the mad scene, he added, “Callas concentrated on interpreting the words with a simplicity and power that absorbed the attention of a capacity audience…. The roar of applause was house-wide.”
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Time and Place

Donizetti was one of the foremost composers of bel canto, an Italian style particularly well practiced in the early nineteenth century and characterized by florid singing, ornate vocal lines and other particular technical demands. The other two best-remembered practitioners are Rossini and Bellini, though at the time of Lucia’s premiere, the former was retired and the latter was dead—meaning that the Italian opera world belonged, if briefly, only to Donizetti, who died in 1848, ceding the art form to the young Verdi. spacer


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