Limelight takes a look at why Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor still gets us going gaga.

September 26, 1835 was quite a night at Naples’ Teatro di San Carlo. A new opera was promised by the then undisputed leading Italian composer of the day and based on Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor – a topical popular novel in print for a mere 15 years. Set in misty, murky Scotland, for patrons of the day it represented the ne plus ultra of romantic destinations, and there was to be a mad scene – like public executions, always a draw. Add to that rumours of potential drama backstage with tempestuous singers and a Machiavellian theatre manager (the ruthless Domenico Barbaja – greatest impresario of his age and, in a former career, inventor of the cappuccino!) As we now know it was a hit and, despite not exactly taking off like a rocket in comparison to some of his other works of the period, it has gone on to be Donizetti’s greatest success. Unlike other works of the bel canto that needed a Callas, a Sutherland or a Caballé to rediscover them in the 1950s and 60s, the opera has remained in the repertoire of major houses through thick and thin. So what is it about Lucia di Lammermoor that has led it to stay the course when so many of Donizetti’s nearly 70 operas have sunk with little trace?

To try and answer some of these questions I spoke to two of the world’s leading Lucias – German coloratura Diana Damrau (who has just released a new recording of the opera taken from concert performances in Munich), and Emma Matthews, Australia’s leading Lucia and very much the heir in the role to Dame Joan Sutherland. 

“I saw my first performance in Vienna standing in the famous Stehplätze [standing places] for a few euros,” Damrau tells me over the phone from the Theater an der Wien. “I was a student and I got to see Edita Gruberová as Lucia. But I think I’d already heard the Sutherland recording and also Callas.” And was it love at first hearing? “Absolutely, because the mad scene is always very, very special and the story of Lucia is so intense and dramatic and touching.” That instant hit, ‘Road to Damascus’ quality chimes with Matthews as well, though in her case it was primarily the music. “I was doing musical theatre at WAAPA, and I was just thinking about crossing over to the Conservatorium,” she tells me over coffee at the Sydney Opera House. “I decided to go to the library every night and listen to different operas. I put on Joan Sutherland singing Lucia and I was mesmerised by the sheer facility and the ability to sing the notes like that. Somebody said to me, ‘You’ll do that one day’, but I didn’t even have a top C at that point so I thought, ‘well that’s a dream’”.

That combination of instant dramatic impact and musical memorability may well be at the heart of the matter. Donizetti at the age of 38 was at the height of his powers and reputation. Rossini had retired in 1829 and Bellini had conveniently expired three days before Lucia’s premiere. But the opera’s immediate predecessor, Marino Faliero, (a tale of dirty doings in Renaissance Venice) and its successor, the Byzantine blockbuster Belisario, despite containing many fine things, are hardly known today. Lucia clearly had a touch of zeitgeist about it, being based on the equivalent of something on today’s best seller list. Furthermore, The Bride of Lammermoor was based on more recent history with a gory dollop of ‘true crime’ thrown in.

Emma Matthews as Lucia (photo: Branco Gaica)

The model for Lucy Ashton was Janet Dalrymple, eldest daughter of a Scottish laird (the Viscount of Stair). Secretly pledged to the Earl of Teviot’s heir, Archibald Rutherford, in 1669, Janet was compelled by her mother to marry a certain Sir David Dunbar. Janet’s brother later recalled that the bride’s hand was “cold and damp as marble” and that she went through the ceremony without emotion. Soon after the couple had repaired to the nuptial chamber, terrible screams were heard and, forcing the door, Dunbar was found stabbed and bleeding. Janet, covered in blood as well, was discovered distressed and trembling in a corner. While some believed that Rutherfurd must have crept into the room and done the deed, Janet never spoke of the events, dying shortly after – apparently insane. 

A great story then, and a gift for savvy Salvadore Cammarano, the talented up-and-coming Neapolitan playwright and librettist who would go on to collaborate in the future with Mercadante, Pacini and Verdi. Although he would write seven more operas with Donizetti, including Pia de’ Tolomei (for the same leading lady as Lucia), Roberto Devereux and Poliuto, it was clear he had hit the ground running with their first collaboration.

The story’s ‘media currency’ was matched by the casting of the two leads. The original Edgardo was the French tenor, Gilbert Duprez, who is credited with the invention of operatic high C from the chest – a feat he first achieved in Guglielmo Tell in 1831. A short man, by the time he created the title role in Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini in 1838 he was past his prime (according to the composer). But in 1835 he was still quite something. He was partnered by the Italian soprano Fanny Tacchinardi-Persiani who would also sing Lucia in the first Paris performance in 1837, opposite the great Rubini, and the London premiere in April 1838. A vocal predecessor of the likes of Patti, Melba and Galli-Curci, Tacchinardi-Persiani’s instrument was described as sweet and light with a brilliant upper register (she had a consistent top F), and she was credited with remarkable agility. Donizetti may have sniffily once described her voice as “rather cold, but quite accurate and perfectly in tune”, but he nevertheless chose her to create title roles in his torrid Plantagenet epic, Rosmonda d’Inghilterra (with Duprez as Henry II) and Pia de’ Tolomei, as well as in Lucia di Lammermoor. In the latter instance there were the usual backstage shenanigans. According to Donizetti she intimidated her romantic onstage partner and kicked up a stink because the tenor’s final scene (featuring the famous aria Fra poco a me ricovero) came after Lucia’s mad scene, ensuring that he got the last round of applause. 

Odd imbalances in the musical plotting have occurred to Emma Matthews as well. “I think it’s disappointing that the only duet Lucia gets with Edgardo comes so early,” she observes. “You have to put the whole relationship into that tiny moment, and generally you’re exhausted because you’ve just done the big Act I aria [Regnava nel silenzio followed by the taxing cabaletta Quando rapito in estasi] and then you have to go straight into the duet [Sulla tomba]. That’s the hard part in the score for me because it’s quite dramatic. The tenor is just sitting there and you’ve really got to work hard to get through to him, so to speak.”

It’s funny, when you do the mad scene you’ve got to be so calm in your breathing while acting the madness
Emma Matthews

But were the unusual qualities of Tacchinardi-Persiani’s voice prohibitive to others tackling the role over the years? Matthews thinks not. “It’s so beautifully written for the high coloratura voice, but there are many sorts of different sopranos that do the role,” she tells me. “You have the dramatic ones like Caballé, then the lighter ones such as myself who bring a totally different quality to it. In some ways I think the music stands by itself – you often get people who aren’t great actresses doing it – but if they’ve got that dramatic facility as well, it’s absolutely mesmerising.” Diana Damrau agrees with that in part. “I think Lucia is the most ‘veristic’ of the bel canto roles,” she says, “I prefer a bigger voice for the role – but that’s just my taste. What I think is most important is that it is brilliantly sung, and felt, and interpreted and played. It’s got to be the whole package. And it’s the madness of Lucia that makes it a real role for acting and singing. The mix of the two must be very strong.”

The madness, then, brings us to perhaps one of the chief reasons for the opera’s stellar reputation. There was nothing particularly novel here – the operatic mad scene had its origins back in the Baroque. The likes of Handel (Orlando, Admeto, Serse), Vivaldi (Orlando Finto Pazzo), Lully (Atys), Rameau (Platée) and Campra (Idoménée) had already raised the vocal meltdown to an artform. Donizetti himself was a noted exponent of the mad scene. Anna Bolena loses the plot prior to her execution and in Gabriella di Vergy his heroine goes (not unsurprisingly) bananas when confronted with the excised heart of her lover. Later, in Maria Padilla, he would even try out the concept of the character tenor role going insane. But in Lucia he offers us something special. “Lucia’s madness is an illness,” says Diana Damrau. “I talked to doctors about that. She is bipolar and you can hear that very clearly in the first aria”. The particularly modern concept of a bipolar bel canto heroine is intriguing and Damrau has clearly thought it through. “She gets very, very happy and almost frenetic when she talks about her visions. And ill people can have visions – she’s not just the standard romantic figure of the time. Because she’s bipolar she really gets very dark and very frightened. Everything seems to be real and very dramatic to her.

She’s under great, great pressure because her mother has died and she’s in a really bad situation. This comes to its peak when she finds out her brother betrayed her – that he forced her into a political marriage – and that everyone around her has manipulated her. When Edgardo comes back and curses her and says, ‘you betrayed love and you betrayed God’, that’s more than she can take. Then the illness comes. The madness breaks out and she kills someone”.

Emma Matthews has experienced some of that madness herself. “The last time I played Lucia I was really encouraged to go there by my director John Doyle,” she tells me. “He told me to play it like I had a nervous mannerism. So I was rubbing my fingers together and playing with my skirt when I was singing – just a bit unconsciously, so there was something unsteady about her. She hasn’t gone over the precipice, but you think that there’s something not quite right here. I thought about something terrible that had happened to somebody I love very much and then pictured myself in her situation. It was really quite traumatic. When I came on for the actual mad scene it was really hard. There was one rehearsal where I just started crying uncontrollably. I thought, ‘okay, I’ve gone much too far. I’ve got to find a way to stop this and bring her back – make it appear that way, but not actually feel it so much’”.

Dame Joan Sutherland was perhaps the 20th century’s most famous Lucia, earning her the appellations ‘La Stupenda’ in 1959

Her conductor at the time, Christian Badea, even wanted to carry that into the singing. “He encouraged me to almost break the voice at times,” she explains. “He wanted it to sound like a scream. When I did the cadenza he said ‘just go “raarrrrrrgh”. It doesn’t matter if there’s a wobble, it doesn’t matter if there’s a crack. We want you to sound like you’ve gone mad’. Initially he wanted me to do a top F in the mad scene. The first time I was so hysterical – I was hysterical as Emma – it just completely went “bleeaaghh”. And so I said, ‘I think if I’m going to get hysterical I’m going to make it an E and not go any higher’. It’s funny, when you do the mad scene you’ve got to be so calm in your breathing while acting the madness.”

Damrau also has a view on the demands dictated by the various versions of the work. “In Munich now they have asked me to sing the original, original, original version of Lucia,” she tells me. “The mad scene is one note higher and the first aria is half a tone higher – so I have E Flat and F! I can do it, but I think I will refuse. I don’t think it brings anything musically, it just makes it more difficult and then even less people can sing it. It’s already high enough – and do you want to see a struggling singer on stage who afterwards loses her voice [laughs]? No, you want to see a singer who manages to sing the role night after night”.

She is bipolar and you can hear that very clearly in the first aria
Diana Damrau

And then there’s that crucial crazy obligato instrument. For well over a hundred years, Lucias traditionally worked on the famous mad scene in conjunction with the opera orchestra’s principal flute – a kind of musical representation of a broken mind that flutters from one idea to the next like a wounded bird. Nowadays, however, they have the ‘back-to-basics’ option of Donizetti’s original conception, the weird and wonderful glass harmonica – an instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin, no less. So is it tricky to sing a duet with something akin to a bunch of upturned wine glasses? “It’s a little bit different,” Diana Damrau admits. “You have to have really good contact with the player. The glass harmonica can’t go as fast as the flute can play it, so you have to adapt along with the musician. The sound of the glass harmonica is a bit like tinnitus. It feels very strange on the ear. It creates a different atmosphere. It’s not about doing something nice, like when you sing with the flute. I think Donizetti really wanted the sound of madness – and it was his wish actually to use the glass harmonica.”

But perhaps none of that would matter if it weren’t for the sheer appeal of the score. Donizetti was heavily influenced by the popular Italian ditties of the day. He knew that if you wanted a success, you needed a good tune. Perhaps that’s why sometimes his arias have a certain throwaway quality to them – an immediacy, yes, but a cheap, transient appeal, some might say. In Lucia, however, he regularly mines his richest seam of melody, coming up with an impressive series of frankly hummable songs. 

At the end of the day, then, is the opera’s legacy simply memorability mixed with intense, situational drama? It seems obvious, I suppose, but how many operas of the period truly combine the two? Much as I love the repertoire, so-so bel canto has a propensity to slip from the memory faster than last night’s Chinese takeaway. Simplistic though it might seem, this is the ultimate reason why so many of us still go mad for Lucia di Lammermoor.

Jessica Pratt sings Lucia di Lammermoor with Victorian Opera, April 12-21.