SFOpera - “So, you have ta’en up your bonny bridegroom?” Gaetano Donizetti and Lucia di Lammermoor

“So, you have ta’en up your bonny bridegroom?” Gaetano Donizetti and Lucia di Lammermoor

"Our theaters go bad to worse… The operas flop, the public hisses, our audience is scarce…. Now at the San Carlo, we will have Persiani’s old opera Danao, then my Lucia di Lammermoor which is now finished…. The crisis is near, the public has indigestion, the theater management is falling apart, Vesuvius is smoking, and the eruption is near."

So wrote Gaetano Donizetti on July 16, 1835, sourly noting the current difficulties besetting the theater scene in Naples. Rehearsals for the season had broken off. Singers refused to work until they were paid. Donizetti, in his position as music director of the Royal Theaters of Naples—the San Carlo and the Fondo—managed to squeeze money out of the theater management, now perilously close to bankruptcy. The rehearsals began anew, and the premiere of his opera on September 26 was no longer threatened.

Despite these conditions, Lucia di Lammermoor would be Donizetti’s fiftieth [!] opera in seventeen years. Donizetti did not achieve acclaim until 1830 with his thirtieth opera, Anna Bolena at the Teatro Carcano, followed two years later by L’Elisir d’Amore (his thirty-ninth opera) this time at the Teatro Cannobbiana. He scored another hit with Lucrezia Borgia (his forty-fourth) in 1833 at the Teatro alla Scala. Ironically, Donizetti achieved his first great successes in Milan; only with his Lucia di Lammermoor did he finally achieve a resounding success in Naples, where he had worked since 1828. In all, Donizetti composed seventy operas before dementia ended his career in 1843; he died from syphilis five years later at age fifty-one.

Salvadore Cammarano (1801–1852), stage director and house librettist for the San Carlo, received the assignment to write the libretto for Donizetti’s newest opera. The Bride of Lammermoor by Walter Scott (1771–1832), published in 1819 as part of the “Waverly Novels,” served as the source for what became Cammarano’s first great success. He went on to write over thirty-five librettos, of which eight were for Donizetti and four for Giuseppe Verdi, with his last and equally successful libretto (albeit posthumous) being the immortal Il Trovatore.

Cammarano’s treatment of The Bride of Lammermoor is a marvel of adaptation. Although four previous composers wrote operas based on Scott’s novel, probably neither Cammarano nor Donizetti was familiar with the earlier works. Although Cammarano excised many of the major characters, the essence of the story remained the same: thwarted love and societal pressures placed upon an already fragile mind. At the same time, the “romantic” atmosphere of the dark, spooky, and exotic Scottish highlands complete with phantoms and, even more terrible, curses remained prominent. Lady Ashton, Lucy’s mother, a strong-willed and manipulative woman who thinks only of the family’s position in society and its honor, is the evil personified in the novel. For the opera, Cammarano deleted Lady Ashton and transformed Lucy’s brother Henry into the chief protagonist, Enrico. To save his political and financial fortunes, Enrico is determined to marry Lucia to Arturo Bucklaw. If she does not, Enrico will curse her and return to haunt her. He does not hear her plaintive but crucial question, “...and me?  What of me?”  To trick her into signing a bridal contract, Enrico produces a forged letter from Lucia’s beloved Edgardo supposedly renouncing his love for her. Her psychological reaction is taken from Walter Scott’s Lucy: “‘To sign and seal!’ echoed Lucy, in a muttering tone, as the door of the apartment closed—‘to sign and seal—to do and die!’”  In Act I, scene 2 Lucia and Edgardo pledged not only their love and betrothal to each other, but also exchanged rings, which, according to a note in the libretto, had the force of marriage. Should that troth be broken, both lovers would be cursed, hence Lucia’s despair for not only her love but also shattering her mind.

One of the many famous and easily identifiable scenes in opera—such as the Habanera in Bizet’s Carmen or Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”—is Lucia’s public mad scene at the end of Act II, which has no equivalent in the novel. A wedding celebration does take place, and a scream is heard from the apartments where Bucklaw and Lucy have retired. The Ashtons rush to the rooms, where they find the gravely wounded Bucklaw (he does not die) and, as described in the novel:

[they] discovered something white in the corner of the great old-fashioned chimney of the apartment. Here they found the unfortunate girl seated, or rather couched like a hare upon its form—her head-gear disheveled, her night-clothes torn and dabbled with blood, her eyes glazed, and her features convulsed into a wild paroxysm of insanity. When she saw herself discovered, she gibbered, made mouths, and pointed at them with her bloody fingers, with the frantic gestures of an exulting demoniac.


Female assistance was now hastily summoned; the unhappy bride was overpowered, not without the use of some force. As they carried her over the threshold, she looked down, and uttered the only articulate words that she had yet spoken, saying, with a sort of grinning exultation, “So, you have ta’en up your bonny bridegroom?” 

Lucy is not heard from thereafter in the novel. No public display of madness or singing of “sweet sounds,” no viewing of phantoms. Nor does she call for her beloved Edgardo. Cammarano’s skill at transforming this episode into an opera scene combined with Donizetti’s music created one of the most theatrical and musically thrilling scenes in opera.

Donizetti was pleased with the reactions to the premiere on September 26, 1835. In a letter to Giovanni Ricordi, he proudly wrote:

It has pleased very much, if I can believe in the applause and the compliments I have received. I was called out many times, and a great many times the singers, too…. The second evening I saw a thing most uncommon in Naples: namely, at the finale after the great cheers for the adagio [the great sextet], Duprez in the curse caused himself to be applauded to the heights…. Every number was listened to in religious silence and spontaneously hailed with shouts of Evviva!....

In the past, Lucia di Lammermoor became almost a parody as a coloratura soprano’s showpiece and sometimes a showstopper. The extraordinary vocal pyrotechnics were not a part of the original 1835 score, nor was the scene at first performed solely with a flute accompaniment. The mad scene does include coloratura passages, but these are not extravagant or ostentatious; they mirror Lucia’s madness. Donizetti did not write ornamentation or roulades that would highlight only the voice: the music as written is essential to the drama and the display of Lucia’s state of mind. All of the coloratura was composed originally to exploit the fine vocal gifts of the first Lucia, Fanny Tacchinardi-Persiani. A glass harmonica would accompany Lucia’s solo appearances: the first at an abandoned fountain before meeting her beloved Edgardo in Act I and her grand finale in Act III.

Donizetti had intended for a glass harmonica to accompany and interact with the soprano and the flute. The glass harmonica, a musical instrument developed by Benjamin Franklin in the 1760s, is a series of glass bowls seemingly stacked on their sides within one another mounted on a rotating spindle, powered either by a foot-operated treadle (much like the old manual sewing machine) or by an electric motor. As the bowls spin, the musician places moist fingertips on the glass, which through friction produce eerie, spooky tones. (A similar tone can be created by rubbing on the rim of a crystal glass with moistened fingertip.) 

For the premiere, however, Donizetti was forced to remove the part for the glass harmonica and rescored the music for a solo flute. The cause for the change remained unclear only until recently: Earlier in the season, the Teatro San Carlo utilized the glass harmonica for a ballet. Recent research uncovered a more practical explanation—in the midst of a pay dispute with the management, the glass harmonica player sued the theater, which in turn, dismissed him from further service. Seeing no other alternative, Donizetti simply rescored the part for solo flute.

Before copyright became the norm, keeping the music together—minimizing cuts, substituting arias, and making other musical changes without the permission of the composer—was equally difficult. Some time after the successful premiere,Fanny Tacchinardi substituted the fountain aria “Regnava nel silenzio alta la notte e bruna” (“Dark night reigned in silence”) with “Perché non ho del vento l’infaticabil volo?”  (“Why do I not have the tireless flight of the wind?”) from Donizetti’s Rosmonda d’Inghilterra that had premiered a year earlier at the San Carlo. Tacchinardi made the substitution for her first stage entrance in consideration of her stage fright, for this aria is not as difficult to sing as the original from Lucia. It is not known if Donizetti approved of this change before 1837. However, for the 1839 Parisian performances of Lucie de Lammermoor at the Théâtre de la Renaissance, Donizetti supervised the reworking of the score and approved of Tacchinardi’s substitution. The aria, now translated as “Que n’avons-nous des ailes…” (“If only we had wings…”), was incorporated into the score, and Meissonnier published the results of Donizetti’s ministrations in French that same year. (Virgin Classics recorded Natalie Dessay in this version in 2002 from performances at Lyon Opera.)  Other major changes have included omitting the “Wolf’s Crag” where Enrico meets Edgardo in the ruins of the Ravenswood Castle, informing Edgardo of Lucia’s impending nuptials and challenging him to a duel. Even the final scene with Edgardo’s great aria, “Fra poco a me ricovero darà negletto avello” (“Soon, a neglected tomb shall cover me”) was not immune; sometimes the opera would end after the mad scene in the belief that nothing could compare to the soprano’s demise.

Not until long after the premiere did the coloratura virtuosity entrench itself into the mad scene, thanks to Nelly Melba’s performances as Lucia in 1889 at the Paris Opéra. The inserted cadenza—a virtuoso vocal passage—occurs at the end of the cantabile, “Ardon gli incensi”(“The incense is burning”) before Enrico’s entrance into the scene. Three years later, a report of Melba’s performance at La Scala noted, “It is a long time since it has fallen to us to hear anything more perfect, more electrifying. The enthusiasm was such that the aggressive audience vigorously demanded an encore, which the diva courteously provided.”  Several versions of the cadenza were published, and the music spread to other sopranos—some gifted, and many not. Here, an irony: early in the life of Lucia di Lammermoor the mad scene was not considered a tour de force, nor was it as highly regarded as its equivalents in Bellini’s Il Pirata (1827) and I Puritani (1835), or Donizetti’s own Anna Bolena (1830).

Sopranos after Melba have reigned supreme with their displays of vocal virtuosity accompanied by the flute. In San Francisco, the performances of Lily Pons, Anna Moffo, Joan Sutherland, and Beverly Sills in the twentieth century continued to spread the fame of Lucia di Lammermoor

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