LUCIE DE LAMERMOOR
Paris was the musical capital of the nineteenth-century world, and Italian composers considered a contract from the Académie Royale/Impériale (depending on whether France was ruled by a King or an Emperor) de Musique a high point in their careers. (Calm your agitated minds! After the “Third Republic” was established in 1870, it became the Théâtre National de l’Opéra, and was thereafter known simply as the Opéra.) Not that the Opéra was the only show in town! There was, for example, the Théâtre-Italien which produced Italian operas in Italian – the Opéra was French only! But the Opéra paid better than any Italian theatre; had better resources, in terms of orchestra and chorus; and wasn’t subject to the political/religious censorship problems that plagued the Italian theatres, which meant that more interesting subjects could be considered as possible librettos.
In October 1838, Donizetti arrived in Paris with a contract from the Opéra for two operas, though no mention was made of what those operas might be. He was not exactly an unknown quantity in the city: four of his operas had been produced at the Théâtre-Italien, including the premiere, in March 1835, of Marin Faliero, which he had supervised; it had been respectably received by the critics, but couldn’t compete with the immense popular success, three months earlier, of Bellini’s La Sonnambula. Of the others, only Anna Bolena (produced there in 1831) held the stage. Now, not only would he compose two new scores for the Opéra, but also he would prepare, for the Théâtre-Italien the first Parisian performances of Roberto Devereux (Teatro San Carlo, 1837) and L’elisir d’amore (La Scala, 1832.), both of which would require some rewriting, given his new cast of singers. Soon after his arrival, it was determined that his first Opéra opera would be Les martyrs, a Frenchified version of Poliuto, his newest score: its premiere had been scheduled for September 26, 1838, at the San Carlo in Naples, but shortly after rehearsals began, the opera, based on a play by Pierre Corneille, was forbidden by the very Catholic King Ferdinand II because it dealt with the martyrdom of a saint. No place here to go into the general tizzoiserie that resulted from the ban, other than to say that Donizetti couldn’t get to Paris quickly enough! Where Roberto was coolly received a few days after Christmas, 1838. A couple of weeks later L’elisir d’amore was rapturously received. And then he began work on his Opéra opera which, he reckoned, would be produced later that year; obviously unaware of the tortoise-like pace at which the Opéra worked he was optimistic, for it wasn’t until April 1840 that Les martyrs was finally produced there. The score had been completed a year earlier, and he was already at work on his second Opéra opera. Somewhere between the success of L’elisir and the completion of Les martyrs, he was persuaded to transform Lucia di Lammermoor, which had been a success at the Théâtre- Italien in December 1838, into Lucie de Lammermoor, a “Grand Opéra en Trois Actes,” with a French text by Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaëz.
This French version would appear on August 6, 1839, at the Théâtre de la Renaissance, not a state-supported company, which consisted, according to Donizetti, of “beginners and dogs,” One of those must have been the bass who would have been cast as Raimondo Bide-the-Bent, the Presbyterian Minister. According to the cast list in the French score, only Alisa, Lucia’s companion and confidante, has been eliminated. But an examination of the score shows that Raimondo’s role has been reduced to merely providing the bass line in the famous “Sestettino” in Act 2. Gone is his Act 1 plea to Enrico that Lucia be allowed more time to grieve her mother’s death; gone too is his duet with her in the first scene of Act 2 in which he tries to impress on her her duty to her family, and that she should submit to the marriage with Arturo, arranged by her brother, rather than give in to the love she feels for Edgardo, the enemy of her clan; while reduced to a very brief recitative is his Naples “Gran Scena con Cori” – a wonderful solo in which he tells the guests of Lucia’s murder of her husband. With Raimondo reduced to his operatic minimum, and without Alisa, her companion, Lucie is deprived of the two characters in her family circle who sympathized with her Italian plight: in French, she is the only female surrounded by the men of her family (mostly her brother Henri and Sir Arthur – the man Henri insists she marry – but also Gilbert, his henchman) who are determined to use her for their own political/financial gain.
The dramatic beneficiary of the reduced Raimondo, and the absent Alisa, is Gilbert: as Normanno in Naples his was a very secondary role: a kind of choral soloist. But in Paris he becomes a more interesting character: as the recipient of Asthon’s fears for his family, he is very much his supportive servant, ready to fight for the family’s honor. When Asthon and his followers leave for the hunt (more on that later) he tells us he’s not very impressed with his master, but, noticing the approach of Lucie, says he must “play each role in turn” and assumes “the concerned appearance of a lover’s confidant.” He assures Lucie he will keep watch for her in her meeting with Edgard. In Act Two it turns out he has been to France, where he has intercepted the letters between the lovers; stole the half-ring the lovers exchanged in their First Act duet and had a replica made, which he produces as “proof” of Henri’s claim in his Act 2 duet with Lucie that Edgard has abandoned her; Lucie, of course, is devastated. Sir Arthur is more present in Paris than he was in Naples: he joins Asthon for the hunt in the opening scene and the two men have an interesting conversation about Lucie’s love; Sir Arthur tells the other that Edgard is about to be sent as envoy to the French court – where, Gilbert says to Asthon, he will kill him: “Only the dead can be trusted.” These various dramatic revisions made the Italian original more palatable to a French audience used to a more psychologically complex drama than those Italian Opera usually provided.
Donizetti tried to keep his score as close as possible to Naples: the majorest changes, as you might expect, occur in the now-in-French recitatives, which link the various “musical numbers.’ But there are other important differences. The original Naples Lucia, Fanny Tacchinardi Persiani jettisoned Lucia’s opening aria “Regnava nel silenzio” as soon as she could, in favor of the opening aria from an earlier Donizetti opera, Rosamonda d’Inghilterra, in which she sang Rosamonda in its Florence premiere in 1834; despite the fact that the earlier aria has nothing to do with Lucia’s situation, the substitution must have gained enough audience approval for Donizetti to have included it in Lucie de Lammermoor. But what is most interesting in this French score, despite its various abbreviations, is that Lucie’s solos retain their original Naples higher keys. The Lucie/Asthon duet that begins Act 2 is in A major (the standard score has it down a step, in G major), while Lucie’s “Mad Scene” is a step higher, in F major.
The other major change is Donizetti’s inclusion of the so-called “Wolf’s Crag” duet between Henri and Edgar (in Naples it was the opening scene of Act 3) into the wedding celebration that begins the third act in Paris. In the libretto that accompanies the CD of Lucie, Act 3 begins with an “Orchestral Interlude”; in my score that “Interlude” consists of the orchestral introduction to the Naples Act 3 that we’re used to hearing, but with the chorus off-stage and abbreviated. While no setting is mentioned either in the libretto or the score, it is obvious it takes place in a room near the Hall where the guests are gathered. Gilbert tells Asthon that an unknown man insists on speaking with him. It is Edgard. There is no storm, as there was in Naples, and it is Edgard who comes to Asthon, not the other way around, as it was in Naples. The result is the same: they agree to a duel at dawn the next day. The scene changes to Great Hall where the guests are celebrating the marriage between Lucie and Sir Arthur: a repeat of the “Orchestral Interlude,” but this time the chorus is on-stage and gets to sing the complete musical number. Which is interrupted by Raimond’s very blunt announcement that Lucie has killed her husband. And we are into the “Mad Scene” – up a step from the key to which we have become accustomed. In Naples this was followed by a recitative scene in which Enrico admits he is distraught and Raimondo turns on Normanno and accuses him of being the root cause of this tragedy. After the spectacular aria Donizetti provided his heroine in her “Scena ed Aria,” he must have realized it was anti-climactic, and removed it for Paris. In the final scene, Edgard arrives for his arranged duel with Asthon, but the male chorus arrives to tell him that Asthon is by the side of his dying sister, and we must presume that she dies during this scene, though the French text is operatically obscure! In Naples it was clear she had died from her madness and her exhaustion after singing her “Mad Scene.”
Despite the poor quality of the singers at the Théâtre de la Renaissance in 1839, this French version proved to be more successful than the original Italian production at the Théâtre-Italien the previous December. Donizetti knew that this success would result in productions outside of Paris, resulting in some sort of performance fee for him, but he could not have imagined that in this form it would be produced at the Opéra in 1846.
And another thing! Just in case you thought my references to “Asthon” were a consistent typo, in my score of Lucie he is “Henri Asthon” in the cast list, and “Asthon” throughout the score.
THE GLASS HARMONICA
Take one of your finest crystal glasses – or borrow one from a friend! Wet your finger, and gently rub it around the rim of the glass: that is the sound of the Glass Harmonica. If you fill your glasses with various amounts of water, you’ll get different pitches. And having done that you can blind your friends with the term “hydrodaktulopsychciharmonica,” which is Greek for “dipping your fingers in water and making sounds” Try it at the next dinner party to which you are invited – though you run the risk of not being invited back. But you could always plead you were trying to recreate the sound Donizetti wanted for the “Mad Scene” of his Lucia di Lammermoor, and, if your hosts were subscribers to Utah Opera, they’d forgive you, and invite you back for encore performances!
Because it seems that Donizetti really did intend to use this weird instrument to accompany his mad Lucia. As early as 1638, Galileo mentions this phenomenon (as described above) in his long-windedly titled “Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences.” Google tells me that it was an Irishman who was the first to turn variously-filled glasses into a musical instrument – why am I not surprised, given that we Irish are known for our drinking and our musicality! A fire in his room destroyed him and his apparatus – perhaps there was not enough water in the glasses to quench the fire? But it was America’s own Benjamin Franklin who developed a mechanical version of the thing. He had heard a performance of water-filled wine glasses in May, 1761, and wondered if there might not be a better way to play the instrument. Two years later he came up with an instrument that had 37 glass bowls of various sizes, mounted horizontally on an iron spindle, turned by a foot treadle, which would rotate the bowls through a trough of water. Mozart wrote for the instrument, as did Beethoven and a number of 19th-century composers. Camille Saint-Saëns wanted it in his Carnival des Animaux (though when I was one of the pianists for performances in Virginia, the part was played on a celeste, its usual substitute); and Richard Strauss asked for it in his 1917 opera Die Frau ohne Schatten.
Certainly the eerie sound of the Glass Harmonica would have been the perfect musical illustration of the state of Lucia’s mad mind, but we’re not sure why Donizetti abandoned his idea to use the instrument for her Act 3 aria: perhaps there wasn’t anyone in Naples who could play it with any proficiency (and would there be adequate players in other cities?); but it may also have been because his realization that its sound would probably not have been heard in a space as large as the auditorium of an opera house. Listen to the Sills recording, which uses the instrument: its sound is almost too delicate even for a studio-made recording.
In 1929 the sixteen-year-old Bruno Hoffmann (he died in 1991) designed and built his own version of the instrument, rediscovered the music written for it during its eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century heyday: transcribing and adapting the scores for his “glass harp,” and commissioning composers to write for it. At least one recording he made for the Turnabout label can be heard on Youtube. In 1984 Gerhard Finkenbeiner came up with a redesigned version of Franklin’s 1763 model, and his company still produces versions of these instruments. “Cristal de Baschet” is a French version of the instrument.
Researching this article I came across the name Dennis James, who has recorded an album of “Glass Music.” His name rang a bell. Turned out he was the organist at the Ohio Theatre in Columbus, Ohio when I lived there as a graduate student at OSU and later as a free-lance musician. The Symphony played there, as did the Opera Company. But, during the summer months, classic movies were screened there on Sundays, and for half-an-hour before show-time Dennis played the Theatre’s organ – one of those grand old instruments that had, literally, bells and whistles. Come movie-time he sank into the depths of the bowels of below-stage, only to rise again during the intermission. We sang along to the songs we knew, booed the on-screen villains and cheered when Joan Fontaine, in Rebecca, told Mrs. Danvers “I am Mrs. Danvers!” Good times! Oh, and by the way, James plays some of these glass instruments in the movie scores for The Minus Man and The Faculty, if they mean anything to you – they don’t to me!
THE CADENZA IN LUCIA’S “MAD SCENE”
There’s no doubt that Donizetti would have expected some kind of vocal cadenza at the end of the first (slower) part of the aria for Lucia in Act 3 – her so-called “Mad Scene.” But there’s equally no doubt that he would not have expected the elaborate display of vocal pyrotechnics, accompanied by a solo flute, and culminating in a high Eb, that is usual today. Because Fanny Tacchinardi Persiani, the first Lucia in Naples, 1835, was known as a great improviser of the vocal decorations expected from singers back then: apparently every performance was different, so it would have been impossible to have had any kind of accompaniment. Also because the original key was a step higher, which would mean a sustained high F for the soprano – those with the note can hit it as Mozart’s Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte, but they’re not comfortable sustaining it!
Here’s a couple of things to consider – and I deal with them in more detail in “The Musical Story” section. First off, Fanny seems to have been not too happy with the role: she got rid of her opening aria “Regnava nel silenzio” as soon as she could; and she didn’t like the fact that it was the tenor, and not she, who ended the opera. The early critics loved the Lucia/Edgardo duet in Act 1; raved about what they termed the “Adagio” of the Second Act finale (the famous “sextette”); and praised the tenor’s final aria; but they didn’t have much to say about Lucia’s final aria – the “Mad Scene.” So it’s possible that she purposely didn’t sing the role as brilliantly as she could have. Then there was Mathilde Palazzesi, who sang the role at the Teatro Ducale in Parma in the 1836-37 season; she adapted the mad scene from Donizetti’s 1832 Fausta, which has a sorta similar situation, but not quite, and sang that in place of the aria Donizetti had written for Naples, and she brought her substitution to Turin the following season. Two other sopranos followed her example in productions in Bologna and Florence, both in 1837.
So when did a cadenza, accompanied by a flute, first appear? William Ashbrook, in his Donizetti and his Operas, credits an earlier Italian scholar, Guglielmo Barblan, with the suggestion that it was Teresa Brambilla (who created the role of Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto in 1851)who first came up with it. Her professional debut was in 1831, so we might assume that her flute-accompanied cadenza dates, at the earliest, from the late 1830s.
Luigi Ricci (1893-1981) was an Italian coach and assistant conductor who began his career by accompanying voice lessons for a baritone who had sung various roles under Verdi’s supervision. Ricci took notes. As an “Assistant Conductor” at the Rome Opera House he worked with Puccini, Mascagni and Giordano, as well as with such conductors as Gui, Panizza, Serafin and de Sabata. His lasting contribution to the opera singer is a collection of 4 volumes which document the various ornaments and variations in the operas of, mostly, Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi, that had become traditional over the years, telling us which singer used which decorations. Of his ten Lucia “Mad Scene” cadenzas (by the way, none are without flute accompaniment) four are anonymous; the first is credited to “Melba, Marchesi and Regina Pacini”; the second to Melba; a couple belonged to singers unknown to me; Adelina Patti’s cadenza is there, as is Marcella Sembrich’s. The great voice teacher Mathilde Marchesi (1821 – 1913) published her own volume of cadenzas (there’s no publication date on my copy) and offers three for Lucia; the first is headed “Cadenza écrite pour Mme Melba,” which may imply that Marchesi herself wrote it. All three are shorter than the one usually sung today, which is a mixture of two or three other versions.
Who was this “Mme. Melba” for whom Marchesi provided a cadenza? Helen Porter Mitchell was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1861. She studied first in Melbourne, but moved to Europe in the 1880s, hoping to establish a career there. London was not impressed in 1886, so she went to Paris where she began studying with Marchesi, who was reported to have said, when Melba first sang for her, “At last I’ve found a star.” Her first great success came the following year as Gilda in Rigoletto in Brussels, followed a few nights later by Violetta in La Traviata. Marchesi suggested she change her name; as a tribute to her birth city she became Nellie Melba, which sounded vaguely Italian, and therefore appropriate for an Opera Diva! Covent Garden suddenly became interested; her debut there as Lucia in 1888 was respectfully received. But her performance of the role at the Paris Opéra in 1889, with the new cadenza with flute, established her as the star Marchesi recognized. One article I read notes that this section alone took up ten weeks of rehearsal! Almost overnight Lucia became a diva-driven display piece, which had never been Donizetti’s intention. Of course Lucia became one of Melba’s signature roles and the other roles by which she is remembered today included Gilda; Violetta; Gounod’s Juliette; Rossini’s Rosina; Gounod’s Marguerite; and Ophélie in Thomas’s Hamlet. But she did not limit herself to those kinds of lyric-coloratura roles. She used her star-power at Covent Garden to insist on more performances of La Bohème, which the management found distasteful! Unusually for a prima donna of her stature at that time she sang Micaëla in Carmen. Even more unusual were the roles she sang a few times, as if trying them on for size: Aida; Desdemona; Nedda in Pagliacci; Elsa in Lohengrin; and the Siegfried Brünnhilde!!
Despite her triumphs in the great opera houses, Melba never forgot Australia, and returned there four times for extensive concert tours. She was also very encouraging to other singers – as long as they didn’t sing her repertoire; she brought with her on her tours younger singers in whom she believed, though there was never any doubt who the star of the evening was! One story I heard concerned the then young Giovanni Martinelli, whom the audience loved so much they started to chant his name; “Oh!” said the diva, standing in the wings, “they’re calling for ‘Auntie Nelli’” and swanned out to take yet another solo bow! She taught in Australia and, stuck there during WWI, threw herself into raising money for the war effort, which earned her the title of “Dame” in 1918. When Covent Garden re-opened after the war she returned to sing Mimì in the “distasteful” La Bohème. There are recordings of her singing, (some on youtube) though the primitive recording equipment does her no favors. Her death in 1931 in Australia was reported throughout the world: many headlines simply said “Melba is dead!”
So when you go to the Capitol Theatre for Utah Opera’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor, thank Auntie Nellie who, in Paris in 1899, with a newly-composed cadenza, gave Donizetti’s opera a new lease of life which shows not the slightest symptom of old age.