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Music with Ease > 19th Century Italian Opera > Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti) - Synopsis

Lucia di Lammermoor -
An Opera by Gaetano Donizetti

Opera in three acts, by Donizetti; words by Salvatore Cammarano, after Scott’s novel, "The Bride of Lammermoor." Produced, San Carlo Theatre, Naples, September 26, 1835, with Persiani as Lucia, and Duprez as Edgardo, the rôles having been especially composed for these artists. London, Her Majesty’s Theatre, April 5, 1838, and, in English at the Princess Theatre, January 19, 1848. Paris, 1839. New York in English, at the Park Theatre, November 17, 1845; and, in Italian, November 14, 1849. Among celebrated Lucias heard in this country, are Patti, Gerster, Melba, Sembrich, Tetrazzini and Galli-Curci (Chicago, November 21, 1916); among Edgardos, Italo Campanini and Caruso.

Fanny Tacchinardi-Persiani as Lucia in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, London, 1838 (image)

Fanny Tacchinardi-Persiani as Lucia in the first London production of Donizetti's opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, on 5 April 1838


LORD HENRY ASHTON, of Lammermoor………………… Baritone
LUCY, his sister……………………………………………… Soprano
EDGAR, Master of Ravenswood……………………………… Tenor
LORD ARTHUR BUCKLAW………………………………. Tenor
RAYMOND, chaplain at Lammermoor……………………… Bass
ALICE, companion to Lucy………………………………….. Mezzo-Soprano
NORMAN, follower of Lord Ashton………………………… Tenor
Relatives, Retainers, and Friends of the House of Lammermoor

Time: About 1700.
Place: Scotland.

(Note: The characters in Italian are Enrico, Lucia, Edgardo, Arturo, Raimondo, Alisa, and Normando.)

"Lucia di Lammermoor" is generally held to be Donizetti’s finest work. "In it the vein of melody -- now sparkling, now sentimental, now tragic -- which embodies Donizettis’s best claim originality and immortality, finds, perhaps, freest and broadest development." These words are quoted from Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, a volume that rarely pauses to comment on an individual work. "Lucia" is indeed its composer’s masterpiece; and a masterpiece of Italian opera in the older definition of that term. Its melodies are many and beautiful, and even when ornate in passages, are basically expressive of the part of the tragic story to which they relate. Moreover, the sextet at the end of the second act when Edgar of Ravenswood appears upon the scene just as Lucy with trembling hand has affixed her signature to the contract of marriage between Lord Bucklaw and herself, ranks as one of the finest pieces of dramatic music in all opera, and as a concerted number is rivalled, in Italian opera, by only one other composition, the quartet in "Rigoletto."

The sextet in "Lucia" rises to the full height of the dramatic situation that has been created. It does so because the music reflects the part each character plays in the action. It has "physiognomy" -- individual aspect and phraseology for each participant in the drama; but, withal, an interdependence, which blends the voices, as they are swept along, into one grand, powerful, and dramatic climax.

Another number, the mad scene in the third act, gives coloratura sopranos an opportunity for technical display equal to that afforded by the lesson scene in "Il Barbiere di Siviglia"; and, unlike the latter, the music does not consist of interpolated selections, but of a complete scéna with effective recitatives and brilliant solos, that belong to the score.

In the story of "Lucia," the heroine’s brother, Lord Henry Ashton of Lammermoor, in order to retrieve his fallen fortunes, and extricate himself from a perilous situation in which his participation in political movements directed against the King has placed him, arranges a marriage between his sister and Lord Arthur Bucklaw. Lucy herself knows nothing of this arrangement. Henry, on the other hand, is equally ignorant of an attachment which exists between Lucy and Edgar of Ravenswood, between whose family and his own there long has been a deadly feud. When he discovers it, he uses the most underhand methods to break it off.

Edgar of Ravenswood is the last of his race. While he is absent on a mission to France in the interests of Scotland, he dispatches many letter to Lucy. These letters are intercepted by Henry who also arranges that a forged paper, tending to prove the infidelity of Edgar, is shown to Lucy. Urged by the necessities of her brother, and believing herself deserted by her lover, Lucy unwillingly consents to become the bride of Lord Arthur Bucklaw. But, just as she has signed the marriage contract, Edgar of Ravenswood suddenly appears. He has returned from France, and now comes to claim the hand of Lucy -- but too late. Convinced that Lucy has betrayed his love, he casts the ring she gave him at her feet and invokes imprecations upon her and his ancient enemies, the House of Lammermoor.

At night he is sought out in his gloomy castle by Henry. They agree upon a duel to be fought near the tombs of the Ravenswoods, on the ensuing morning, when Edgar, weary of life, and the last of a doomed race, intends to throw himself on his adversary’s weapon. But the burden of woe has proved too much for Lucy to bear. At night, after retiring, she goes out of her mind, slays her husband, and dies of her sorrows.

Edgar awaits his enemy in the churchyard of Ravenswood. But Ashton has fled. Instead, Edgar solitude is interrupted by a train of mourners coming from the castle of Lammermoor. Upon hearing of Lucy’s death he plunges his dagger into his breast, and sinks down lifeless in the churchyard where repose the remains of his ancestors.

On the stage this story is developed so that shortly after the curtain rises on Act I, showing a grove near the Castle of Lammermoor, Henry learns from Norman the latter’s suspicions that Lucy and Edgar have been meeting secretly in the park of Lammermoor. Norman has dispatched his huntsmen to discover, if they can, whether or not his suspicions are correct. "Cruda funesta smania" (each nerve with fury trembleth) sings Henry.

Returning, the hunters relate, in a brisk chorus, that

Long they wandere’d o’er the mountain,
Search’d each cleft around the fountain,

finally to learn by questioning a falconer that the intruder upon the domain of Lammermoor was none other than Edgar of Ravenswood. Rage and the spirit of revenge are expressed in Henry’s vigorous aria, "La pietade in suo favore" (From my breast I mercy banish).

The scene changes to the park near a fountain. What now occurs is usually as follows. The curtain rises, and shows the scene -- evening and moonlight. There is played a beautiful harp solo, an unusual and charming effect in opera. Having prepared the mood for the scene which is to follow, it is promptly encored and played all over again. Then Lucy appears with her companion, Alice. To her she relates the legend of the fountain, "Regnava nel silenzio" (Silence o’er all was reigning).

This number gives an idea of the characteristics of Lucy’s principal solos. It is brilliant in passages, yet its melody is dreamy and reflective. Largely due to this combination of traits is the popularity of "Lucia di Lammermoor," in which, although there is comparatively little downright cheerful music, it is relieved of gloom by the technical brilliancy for which it often calls; -- just as, in fact, Lucy’s solo following the legend of the fountain, dispels the dark forebodings it inspired. This second solo for Lucy, one of the best known operatic numbers for soprano, is the "Quando rapita" (Then swift as thought).

Another beautiful and familiar number is the duet between Lucy and Edgar, who has come to tell her of his impending departure for France and to bid her farewell: "Verranno lá sull’ aure" (My sighs shall on the balmy breeze).

Act II. Apartment in the castle of Lammermoor. "I1 pallor funesta orrendo" (See these cheeks so pale and haggard).

In this sad air Lucy protests to her brother against the marriage which he has arranged for her with Bucklaw. Henry then shows her the forged letter, which leads her to believe that she has been betrayed by her lover. "Soffriva nel pianto languina nel dolore" (My sufferings and sorrow I've borne without repining) begins the duet between Lucy and Henry with an especially effective cadenza -- a dramatic number.

Though believing herself deserted by Edgar, Lucy still holds back from the thought of marriage with another, and yields only to save her brother from a traitor’s death, and even then not until she has sought counsel from Raymond, the chaplain of Lammermoor, who adds his persuasions to Henry’s.

The scene of the signing of the dower opens with a quick, bright chorus of guests who have assembled for the ceremony.

There is an interchange of courtesies between Henry and Arthur; and then Lucy enters. The sadness of her mien is explained by her brother to Arthur on the ground that she is still mourning the death of her mother. Desperate, yet reluctant, Lucy signs the contracts of dower; and at that moment, one of the most dramatic in opera, Edgar, a sombre figure, but labouring under evident though suppressed tension, appears at the head of the broad flight of steps in the background, and slowly comes forward.

The orchestra preludes briefly:

The greatest ensemble number in Italian opera, the sextet, has begun. Edgardo: "Chi mi frena il tal momento? Chi troncò dell' ire il corso?" (What restrains me this moment? Why my sword do I not straightway draw?)"

Because he sees Lucy "as a rose ‘mid tempest bending":

Even Henry is moved to exclaim, "To my own blood I am a traitor":

The chorus swells the volume of sound, but Lucy’s voice soars despairingly above all:

Lucy and Edgar -- they are the victims of Henry’s treachery, as will soon, transpire.

Act III. The first scene is laid in Edgar’s gloomy castle, whither at night comes Henry to challenge him to a duel at morn.

The scene then changes back to Lammermoor, where the wedding guests still are feasting. Their revels are halted by Raymond, who horror-stricken, announces to them that Lucy has gone mad and slain her husband; and soon the unhappy bride herself appears. Then follows the mad scene, one of the greatest "show numbers" for soprano, with the further merit that it fits perfectly into the scheme of the work.

This is an elaborate scéna. In an earlier part of the opera Donizetti made effective use of a harp. In the mad scene he introduces a flute obligato, which plays around the voice, joins with it, touches it with sharp, brilliant accentuations, and glides with it up and down the scale in mellifluous companionship.

In a brief article in The Musician, Thomas Tapper writes that "to perform the mad scene has been an inspiration and incentive to attainment for many singers. Its demands are severe. There must be the ‘mood,’ that is, the characterization of the mental state of Lucy must be evidenced both in vocal tone and physical movement. The aria requires an unusual degree of facility. Its transparency demands adherence to pitch that must not vary a shade from the truth (note the passage where voice and flute are in unison). The coloratura soprano is here afforded unusual opportunity to display fluency and flexibility of voice, to portray the character that is ‘as Ophelia was’; the dramatic intensity is paramount and must be sustained at a lofty eminence. In brief, the aria is truly a tour de force."

One of the best things in the above is its insistence on the ‘mood," the emotional situation that underlies the music. However brilliant the singing of the prima donna, something in her performance must yet convey to her hearers a sense of the sad fortunes of Lucy of Lammermoor.

To the accomplishment of this Donizetti lends a helping hand by introducing, as a mournful reminiscence, the theme of the first act love duet for Lucy and Edgar ("My sighs shall on the balmy breeze"); also by the dreaminess of the two melodies, "Alfin son tua" (Thine am I ever); and

"Spargi d’amaro pianto" (Shed thou a tear of sorrow).

Preceding the first of these, and also between the two, are dramatic recitatives, in which the flute, possibly introduced merely for musical effect, yet, with its clear, limpid notes, by no means untypical of Lucy’s pure and spiritual personality, is prominent in the instrumental part of the score. Upon a brilliant phrase of vocalization, like "Yet shall we meet, dear Edgar, before the altar,"

it follows with this phrase.

which simple, even commonplace, as it seems, nevertheless, in place, has the desired effect of ingenuousness and charm; while the passage beginning,

has decided dramatic significance.

I also give an example of a passage in which flute and voice combine in a manner that requires impeccable intonation on the singer’s part.

The scéna ends with a strétta, a concluding passage taken in more rapid tempo in order to enhance the effect.

It is always interesting to me to hear this scene, when well rendered, and to note the simple means employed by the composer to produce the impression it makes.

The flute is an instrument that long has been the butt of humorists. "What is worse than one flute?" -- "Two flutes." This is a standard musical joke. The kind suggestion also has been volunteered that Lucy of Lammermoor went out of her head, not because she was deserted by Edgar, but because she was accompanied by a flute.

Nevertheless the flute is precisely the instrument required as an obligato to this scene. Italian composers, as a rule, pay little attention to instrumentation. Yet it is a fact that, when they make a special choice of an instrument in order to produce a desired effect, their selection usually proves a happy inspiration. The flute and the harp in "Lucia" are instances; the bassoons in the introduction to "Una furtiva largrima" (A furtive tear) in "L’Elisire d’ Amore" furnish another; and the wood wind in the "Semiramide" duet, "Giorno d’Orrore" (Dark day of horror) may also be mentioned.

There is a point in the mad scene where it is easy to modulate into the key of G major. Donizetti has written in that key the aria "Perchè non ho del vento" (Oh, for an eagle’s pinions) which sopranos sometimes introduce during the scene, since it was composed for that purpose.

Probably the air is unfamiliar to opera-goers in this country. Lionel Mapleson, the librarian of the Metropolitan Opera House, never has heard it sung there, and was interested to know where I had found it. As it is a florid, brilliant piece of music, and well suited to the scene, I quote a line of it, as a possible hint to some prima-donna.

During the finale of the opera, laid near the churchyard where lie the bones of Edgar’s ancestors, Lucy’s lover holds the stage. His final aria, "Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali" (Tho’ from earth thou’st flown before me), is a passage of mournful beauty, which has few equals in Italian opera.

Of the singers of former days who have been heard here as Lucia, Adelina Patti interpreted the role with the least effort and the greatest brilliancy. Hers was a pure flexible soprano, which seemed to flow forth spontaneously from an inexhaustible reservoir of song. Unfortunately she was heard here by many long after her day had passed. She had too many "farewells." But those who heard her at her best, always will remember her as the possessor of a naturally beautiful voice, exquisitely trained.

Italo Campanini, a tenor who was in his prime when Mapleson was impresario at the Academy of Music, was one of the great Edgardos. He was an elder brother of Cleofante Campanini, orchestral conductor and director of the Chicago Opera Company.

As for Caruso, rarely have I witnessed such excitement as followed the singing of the sextet the evening of his first appearance as Edgardo at the Metropolitan Opera House. It is a fact that the policeman in the lobby, thinking a riot of some sort had broken loose in the auditorium, grabbed his night stick and pushed through the swinging doors -- only to find an audience vociferously demanding an encore. Even granted that some of the excitement was "worked up," it was, nevertheless, a remarkable demonstration.

The role of Enrico, though, of course, of less importance than Edgardo, can be made very effective by a baritone of the first rank. Such, for example, was Antonio Galassi, who, like Campanini, was one of Mapleson’s singers. He was a tall, well put-up man; and when, in the sextet, at the words "E mio rosa inaridita" (Of thine own blood thou’rt the betrayer), he came forward in one stride, and projected his voice into the proceedings, it seemed as if, no matter what happened to the others, he could take the entire affair on his broad shoulders and carry it through to success.

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