VIRGINIA OPERA’S LUCIA: DON’T MISS THIS ROMANTIC TRAGEDY

What one sees on the Harrison Opera House stage with Lucia Di Lammermoor (1835) represented an historic change in tragic storytelling.

It is also an opera production you should not miss, whether you are a seasoned opera-goer, or a would-be rookie thinking about trying out the art for the first time.

In Lucia, the hero and heroine are not presented, as they would have been in the past, as authors of their own misfortunes, like Romeo and Juliet. Gaetano Donizetti’ characters, taken from Sir Walter Scott, are, instead, drawn as heroic victims, caught up in the horror of a malevolent fate

Salvatore Cammarano’ s libretto for Lucia Di Lammermoor is taken from Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor (1819). As was typical at the dawning of the Romantic age, a kind of sentimentalism appeared in stories with dark, tragic endings, devoid of any redeeming sense that, despite death, the force of life had triumphed nevertheless, as with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  Often the new Romantic tales end, as in Lucia, with the violent death of the heroine.

Whereas late eighteenth-century opera was dominated by comedy, opera in the nineteenth century shifted toward tragedy. The happy daylight endings of Mozart and Rossini gave way to the gloomy, night time catastrophic endings associated with Verdi or Wagner.

Donizetti’s Lucia was one of the first of Romanticism’s “persecuted maidens”, a type of figure which came to characterize Romantic art. However, the new dramatic structure did not resemble that of classical tragedy. Instead, the Romantic plot more closely resembled that of comedy, but with its stratagems, confusions, and misunderstandings left unfixed by Providence. In Romantic Tragedy these plot happenings are not fortuitously resolved; instead, they go hideously and tragically wrong.

In earlier tragedies we might have seen the evil author of the misfortunes, like an Iago, taken off for punishment, or the warring forces reconciled, as with the Capulets and Montagues at the end of Romeo and Juliet. But in Romantic tragedy, like Lucia di Lammermoor, there is no victory for the forces of light. Only darkness remains as the story seems to remain unresolved, as with Tosca or Rigoletto. The dissolute remain unpunished in a world in which God seems, at best, inactive.

The story of Lucia was based on a real-life incident. The Honorable Janet Dalrymple, daughter of the first Lord Stair, developed a passionate attachment to Lord Rutherford. The young nobleman returned this affection, and the pair plighted their troth in the usual manner, by dividing a coin between them. They added sweorn curses on whomever should withdraw from, or violate, the compact. But their parents did not approve. The Dalrymples instead favored Dunbar of Baldoon.

On learning that Dunbar was preparing to marry Janet, Lord Rutherford wrote to his fiancé to remind her of their engagement, but received an answer from her mother, to the effect that “she was now sensible of the error she had committed in entering into an engagement unsanctioned by the parental authority; and this engagement it was not her intention to fulfill.” Rutherford insisted on hearing directly from Janet. The lovers met in the presence of her mother, a practitioner of Scottish witchcraft. Rutherford argued his case from the Bible, while poor Janet sat mute and overwhelmed. The meeting ended when Rutherford rushed from the house, while Dunbar vainly pleaded against the application of the Biblical texts. The scene ended with Janet having surrendered her portion of the broken coin, as Rutherford flew distracted from the house.

The wedding between Janet and Dunbar was celebrated, but the bride remained “like one lost in a reverie, and who only moves and acts mechanically.”  In the evening, the newly wedded pair retired to their chamber, while the merry-making continued in the hall. Suddenly a loud piercing cry was heard from the bridal-chamber, followed by dismal groans. When the door was forced open the company discovered Dunbar lying in his blood on the threshold, and the bride cowering in a corner by the chimney, almost naked and dabbled in gore. Janet told them “to take up their bonny bridegroom.” It was evident she was insane, and all believed that she had franticly stabbed her husband. From that moment, Janet never spoke again, but pined away and died in less than three weeks. Young Dunbar recovered, but would never discuss the tragic events. Some believed that Dunbar’s wounds were inflicted by Lord Rutherford, who, they say, had hidden in the chamber beforehand, and escaped afterwards through a window.

Inspired, the thirty-eight-year-old Donizetti wrote the opera’s score in 36 days. On September 26, 1835 the opera premiered at San Carlo, Naples. Written specifically for Fanny Persiani as Lucia and Gilbert-Louis Duprez as Edgardo, Cammarano’s story had already been the basis for operas by Carafa and H. C. Anderson.

But Donizetti’s opera alone became one of the masterpieces of Italian romantic opera. The famous mad scene for Lucia was originally written with the accompaniment of a glass harmonica. However, when the resident glass harmonica player of Naples got into a labor dispute with the theater, Donizetti rewrote the piece for flute obbligato. Accompanied, it is one of the great bel canto set pieces.

The Virginia Opera’s production wisely centers on the classic vocal triangle. Edgardo, the heroic tenor, is played wonderfully by Joseph Dennis with just the right blend of swashbuckle and sensitivity. Enrico, the nasty baritone, decides to help the family finances by marrying his sister to the wealthy snowflake neighbor, Arturo.  Tim Mix ‘s strong and commanding voice is matched by a powerful stage presence as his Enrico rules the Scottish roost. Arturo is played by Bille Bruley, so hysterically funny in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Mr. Bruley shifts gears ably to embody the pathetic suitor and unfortunate victim of Lucia.

Lucia, the tragic soprano, is the object of Edgardo’s love and a monumental challenge for leading stage sopranos. One of American opera’s most famous debuts occurred at the New York Academy of Music on Thanksgiving of 1859. On that day, Adelina Patti, then barely sixteen years old, made her operatic debut in Lucia di Lammermoor.

Her appearance was that of a very young lady. Petite and interesting, with just a tinge of the school room in her manner. She was apparently self-possessed, but not self-assured. After the first few bars of recitative she launched boldly into the cavatina, one of the most difficult pieces in the opera. This she sang perfectly, displaying a thorough Italian method and a high soprano voice, fresh, full and even throughout…. Miss Patti sang with sympathetic tenderness – a rare gift in one so young – and increased the enthusiasm of the audience to a positive furore which was demonstrated in the usual way – recalls, bouquets, wreaths, etc., etc. The horticultural business was more extensive than usual.[i]

The performance established Patti’s famous style, as summarized by George Bernard Shaw: “she seldom even pretends to play any other part than that of Adelina, the spoiled child with the adorable voice.”

I thought of Ms. Patti when I saw Rachele Gilmore enter the stage as Lucia.  I had never thought of Lucia as a petite person, never mind as a child-bride. Ms. Gilmore’s stature, like that of the other opera dynamo, Kathryn Lewek (the reigning Queen of the Night), presents a mighty voice and finely-tuned acting instrument in a comparatively small frame. All the better, in this case, to produce a magnetic performance of Lucia di Lammermoor. Ms. Gilmore commands the stage to such an extent that her presence lingers and haunts the action even when she is not physically present. And the famous arias and duets seem to glide effortlessly from her golden throat.

The marriage of Lucia and Edgardo is, of course, firmly opposed. However, just when the marriage contract of Lucia and Arturo is about to be signed, Edgardo, thought missing, appears on the scene, to spawn the famous concertato  – sextet during which the principals sing out all of their accumulated pain, anger and confusion, as the chorus of shocked onlookers back them up.

Joining Ms. Gilmore, Mr. Dennis, Mr. Mix, and Mr. Bruley in the sextet are Richard Ollarsaba, singing and playing the priest beautifully, though needing to find other colors to contrast his dominant mood of scorn. Finally, Melisa Bonetti as Alisa joins in the singing fireworks, playing the lady-in-waiting as a young Edna May Oliver. In the group she did not have the audibility problems she did in the first act.  The Virginia Opera Chorus came into its full majesty once the women joined the ranks.

So thrilling was the sextet that the audience seemed to want an encore!

In the last act Lucia murders her new husband in their wedding bed, falls into an elaborate vocal madness and dies. In the 1800s the great Australian soprano Nellie Melba began to perform an extended cadenza at the end of the mad scene’s slow movement, seemingly in competition with the flute. The cadenza became the most famous moment in the opera, even though it was a soprano’s invention rather than Donizetti’s. With this famous passage, Ms. Gilmore simply gives a superb master class on cadenza singing. (And she happens to resemble the original Lucia, Fanny Tacchinardi -Persiani in the photo.)

In the final scene Edgardo is told of Lucia’s death. Overcome with grief, he kills himself to be with her at last. Many have found Edgardo’s final aria an unfortunate anti-climax to Lucia’s knock-down-drag-out Mad Scene. And for most tenors it is. I’ve seen the great Piotr Beczala fail to give anything more than an excellent rendition on two occasions, following the mad scenes of two world-class sopranos.  Mr. Dennis joins the  ranks with Mr. Beczala of wonderful tenors who could not overcome the structural placement of their final aria.

The only exception to the final scene jinx was the legendary Enrico Caruso. Caruso displayed “the loveliest voice heard in this country since Campanini was in his prime. “Dressed all in black, except for white collar and cuffs, Caruso sang to cause the audience, who customarily left after Lucia’s Mad Scene, to remain for the opera’s conclusion, just to hear more Caruso.

But there was only one Caruso.

The production’s director Kyle Lang keeps the action moving apace with intelligent stage movements and grouping, fortunately avoiding happy “improvements” to the great story. Catherine Zuber’s Glimmerglass production’s costumes serve the production well. Lucia’s entrance in Act II, wearing the same color as the women in the chorus, immediately  establishes her as their champion in relation to men. Driscoll Otto’s lighting and projections are, once again, fascinating, provocative, and appropriate. This production employs time brief film clips, looking like silent film outtakes, to punctuate the flow of the scenes with pronounced effect. Conductor Ari Pelto’s love of this opera was obvious through the passion and care he exerted throughout.

The program does not identify a scene designer. What we see on stage did not just magically happen. Some person or persons decided what would be seen moment by moment. Their thinking deserves credit, I think.

Virginia Opera finishes its 2017-2018 on a very high Donizetti note.

(NOTE: My usual practice is to include a photo of the production program. This time I am not. The poster and program for this production was, like most of the marketing images this season, offensive, soft sadomasochistic. I hope for better with 2018-19).

[i] New York Herald, 28 November 1859.

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