Cheat Sheet: Lucia di Lammermoor
Everything you need to know about the opera with the famous mad scene.
Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti was one of the most prominent Italian composers working during the first half of the 19th century. He was an expert in the bel canto style. Born into a poor family with no musical talent, Donizetti was lucky to attract the attention of a local composer, who trained him in the basics of music. He graduated and moved on to the Bologna Academy where he wrote his first opera at the age of 19.
A move to Naples at age 24 began a lifetime of success — he would stay in that city for most of his life, as resident composer of the Teatro di San Carlo. The tragedy Anna Bolena was his first international success, quickly followed by the comedy The Elixir of Love. He was a prolific composer, writing somewhere between 65 and 70 operas by the time of his death. (He also composed 28 cantatas and 19 string quartets.)
In 1843, Donizetti began to show symptoms of syphilis and depression. By 1846, he was moved to an institution for the mentally ill and travelled home to die in his birth town in April 1848.
Of Donizetti’s most famous works, The Elixir of Love, Lucia di Lammermoor and Don Pasquale rank in the top 100 operas performed around the world today.
A lithograph portrait of Gaetano Donizetti by Joseph Kriehuber, 1842. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Copyright: public domain.
Lucia is truly, madly, deeply in love with a man her whole family despises.
When her brother Enrico discovers their love, he is furious, and devises a plot to drive the lovers apart.
He does it without thought for her heart, but it is Lucia’s mind that will pay the price for his actions.
Who are the main players?
Lucia: a young, aristocratic woman
Sir Edgardo di Ravenswood: the man she's in love with
Lord Enrico Ashton: her brother
Lord Arturo Bucklaw - the man Enrico wishes Lucia to marry
Lucia di Lammermoor might be famous for its mad scene, but it's the sextet, 'Chi mi frena tal momento', that probably deserves the title of biggest hit. A 1908 recording by Enrico Caruso and others sold for the whopping price of $7 upon its release, which is roughly equivalent to trying to flog a new Kanye West single for $170 (AUD).
'Chi mi frena tal momento' happens at the height of the story and all of the emotional and dramatic tension of the opera is caught up in this lovely, complex ensemble, as each of the characters sing of their part in the tragedy that is to follow.
Where have I heard that before?
If you're a fan of the 1932 Scarface, you know the famous sextet. The mobster whistled Lucia's tune before killing his enemies. Martin Scorcese paid homage to this ingenious choice (the sextet begins 'Who restrains me in such a moment?') in The Departed, where crime boss Frank Costello has it as his ringtone.
Something to listen out for
The composer uses themes at powerful moments to spark memories of things we've already seen. As Lucia's famous mad scene plays out, she claims to hear her lover's voice, and Donizetti throws back to two themes from Act 1: firstly, music that played as she described seeing a ghost, and secondly, a melody that recalls an early scene where Lucia and Edgardo pledged their love. Donizetti is cleverly showing us that Lucia is losing her grip on reality.
In the 1830s, the fashionable set in Europe were obsessed with all things Scottish. Sir Walter Scott’s chilling novel about a reluctant bride driven to madness by her family was a popular read, along with all the great novelist’s works.
This made it a natural choice for librettist Salvadore Cammarano (in fact, the novel had already inspired four other operas). It was the first time Donizetti and the talented librettist had worked together, and it marked the start of a long partnership.
Cammarano’s adaptation was so powerful it inspired Donizetti into a frenzy of composition. He completed the score in just two months, and it premiered at the Teatro di San Carlo in September 1835. It was a triumph, and Lucia di Lammermoor cemented Donizetti’s position as the most important opera composer in Italy, a post made vacant by the recent death of Bellini and retirement of Rossini a few years earlier.
He revised the opera for French audiences and it premiered in Paris in 1839, bringing Donizetti fame and acclaim in that great city of culture.
Donizetti had a few major setbacks at the start of his career. On the opening night of his first staged work, the lead soprano refused to go on stage after suffering stage fright. The show went on with some major cuts.
A few days before his ninth opera premiered, the lead tenor died suddenly. Donizetti swiftly rewrote the part for a mezzo-soprano and the opera was a critical success.
- Lucia di Lammermoor tapped into a continental fascination with Scotland (who knew?) driven by Sir Walter Scott's many popular novels.
- Donizetti’s original mad scene called for the eerie sound of a glass harmonica. But when the player walked out over a pay dispute just before the premiere, Donizetti was forced to rewrite the part for a flute. (This practical change is the most frequently performed version today.)
- In Scott's novel, the villain who forces Lucia to marry is actually her mother, not her brother. But Donizetti liked a particular baritone on the singing roster at the Teatro di San Carlo, so he asked his librettist to recast the villain as a male role.
- Four other operas based on Walter Scott’s popular novel preceded Donizetti’s — but his is the only one that is still performed today.
- Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland were particularly famous for their portrayals of Lucia.
The composer: Donizetti. Italian. 19th Century.
The music: Filled with long, lyrical melodies designed to show off the beauty and agility of the singers' voices.
The big hit: 'Chi mi frena in tal momento', a gorgeous sextet that is regularly featured in television shows and films.
The setting: 18th-century Scotland.
The history: Donizetti wrote Lucia di Lammermoor in just two months, and it was a triumph from the day it premiered in Naples.
A quirky fact to impress your date: In the 1932 film Scarface, the title character whistles the famous Lucia sextet just before he kills his enemies.