One night about twenty years ago I squatted on the pavement opposite the old Covent Garden box office to queue for a last spare ticket to see Joan Sutherland in Lucia. She was getting on a bit by then, and her tenor, Carlo Bergonzi, had already turned sixty but this seemed something not to miss. Sure enough, at the end of the first act when the star-crossed lovers sang of their ecstasy and of their tears carried on the breeze across the sea that was to separate them, the place was gripped by one of those atmospheres that sometimes turn an evening into a memorable tableau. I turned to the elderly lady sitting next to me, whom I had thought a little stiff and proper. Tears were pouring down her cheeks.It turned out that she was a veteran of the famous first night in 1959 when Sutherland’s fame was sealed with one performance and she became La Stupenda. My neighbour could remember it as if it had happened the week before, the tall figure stumbling down the steps in the mad scene, transfixed by the sheer horror of what she had done. On that night with Bergonzi, her response to the haunting flute obbligato which echoes her earlier happiness, seemed as fresh as it must have done to the audience that first saw Sutherland in full flow. This is what Lucia can do.Nothing about it is philosophical or intellectually puzzling and it makes no demands beyond a certain surrender of the emotions. Directness is everything. For the three principals, their great arias are written as bold statements of their emotions. All Donizetti’s subtlety is turned to the simplification of feeling. Even in the wonderfully-worked sextet, which is one of the glories of Italian opera, the story stays on its simple line, weaving the tragedy out of emotions that are fundamentally straightforward – pure love, innocence, family rivalry, betrayal and jealousy. They are the sinews of that wonderful set piece ensemble and the brilliance of the thing is that they seem to come together in a way that point up the straightforwardness of the tragedy. Donizetti’s librettist, Salvatore Cammarano, doesn’t have to tease out an argument, or dwell on the causes of the feelings we see on the stage. They are simply there.
The blazing force of Lucia is testimony to the power of the romantic idea which was sweeping Italy in the 1830s. Sir Walter Scott is understandably, though a little unjustly, neglected these days because of his length and his style and the Gothic architecture of some of his stories, but in early nineteenth century Europe he was a star. In Italy, particularly, his bloodstained tales of love and heroism seemed to many artists to catch the authentic ring of the “true” emotions they believed it was their duty to reveal. And for an opera composer he had the unfailing gift of the dramatic. Rossini, whose musical heir Donizetti was, had produced La Donna del Lago (from the poem The Lady of the Lake) sixteen years before Lucia, and the list of operas based on Scott is extraordinarily long. There were six Lammermoors of various sorts in the course of the nineteenth century, five versions of Heart of Midlothian, a couple of Guy Mannerings, no fewer that seven Ivanhoes and the same number of Kenilworths and even a German version of Waverley.
Not many of us have delved into this repertoire in depth, and most of us are unlikely to get round to it, though Bizet’s La Jolie Fille de Perth is performed from time to time. I would guess that the number of people who could hum an aria from Albert Grislar’s Sarah, ou L’Orpheline de Glencoe (from The Highland Widow) is small. But Scott’s influence in his day was vast. Scotland, with its own noble savages inhabiting a spectacular and dreamy landscape, was a treasured destination for the romantic mind.
Donizetti’s opera reveals how these stories fitted perfectly with the musical style he was developing, using Rossini’s inspiration and his own unstoppable flow of melody. They are tales of the great emotions and the great human tragedies painted in the most vivid colours, which was what audiences in those days believed opera should be. You could try to make a case for Edgardo’s last aria, at dawn among the tombs of his Ravenwood ancestors, being introspective, but when he sings to the dead Lucia – “tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali” – it is much easier to think of it as an elegant cry to the inevitability of fate. There has been a forged letter, a desperate effort to save a family fortune by an arranged and doomed marriage and the shadow of a dispute that stretches back through the generations, but this is the raw and simple emotion of loss. Donizetti gives Edgardo some melting music, melodies which are a gift to any tenor with an Italianate bloom to his voice.
The directness which gives the opera its spirit is even obvious in the mad scene, though at first glance it may seem a more subtly constructed affair. Just after the start of Act III, when we have learned that Lucia has stabbed her husband, Arturo, on their wedding night, she appears in her blood-streaked clothes with her dagger, having lost her mind. The music describes what kind of madness this is and becomes itself the state of her mind. Her ecstatic aria from Act I – “Quando rapito in estasi…” now becomes a tormenting memory that recurs as she sinks in despair, and the flute almost seems to be a cruel tease with its echoes of her voice. We realize in the way that her notes seem to tumble out, and her voice rises and falls, exactly what has happened to her. All the mechanisms of her world have gone haywire. Nothing works as it once did, or should. This is death, preceded by the inevitable-seeming hallucination of her lover back again at the fountain where they declared their love.
This scene is one of the glories of Italian opera. Sutherland made it her own after that Covent Garden performance in 1959 and it has produced memorable performances on disc as well as in the theatre. Sutherland’s own recording of 1971 with Pavarotti as a fresh-voiced Edgardo and Sherill Milnes as Enrico is marvellous and there are two live recordings of Callas in the role which catch the excitement of performance – at La Scala in 1954 and another (far better) a year later in Berlin, both under von Karajan with Giuseppe di Stefano as Edgardo. The footshifting and coughing is worth bearing to sense the dramatic impact of her appearance after the murder. This mad scene is a journey into utter darkness. Callas seems to have lost all her bearings and then for a moment to recover the delicacy and control – reminding you how sensitive and passionate this woman is – before losing them again. Donizetti’s brilliance lies in that tenderness of the musical line, threading its way through a disordered mind.Everything leads us to this moment, and then to Edgardo’s dying despair among the tombstones, and the power of the opera lies partly in the speed with which that can be done. In the course of a relatively short first act a vivid story is told, of feuding families, of the hatred between Edgardo and Enrico, of the depth of Lucia’s ecstasy and the pain of separation by war. The scene is set for betrayal and happiness snatched away. For the operatic composer, the boldness of the strokes on Scott’s canvas is a godsend. This story was made for this kind of music. Enrico’s aria (“Cruda, funesta smania…”) and Lucia’s own memory of a ghostly warning of disaster are masterpieces of compression. The opera can seem to linger tenderly on these moments of deep emotion and Walter Scott is therefore a happy partner for Donizetti. His own preference was for long descriptions, slow conversations and stories that are stretched out like sagas but on the operatic stage where things must move like the wind the melodramatic rhythms of these stories seem perfectly suited to the task. Set for the straight theatre, The Bride of Lammermoor would be a bit of a bore, I suspect. It needs the bright colours of opera. To some critics and audiences, of course, this is a disadvantage and to those who are sniffy about mid-nineteenth century Italian opera – even by Verdi’s hand – Lucia seems a thin character, created only by the clash of the action around her and not from something inside. This has always seemed to me a pointless criticism, however deeply felt, because it tries to turn these operas into something different. They should be heard and seen as brilliant musical escapades in which the characters seem to exist in their melodies as much as on the stage.
Lucia flows smoothly from beginning to end because Donizetti’s melodic invention gives the characters life. Enrico has wonderful baritone arias, Lucia is given the opportunity for coloratura fireworks, Edgardo’s role is a dream for a certain kind of tenor, the ensembles are exhilarating…and so on. The score seems liquid from beginning to end, and from it can come moments of plangent excitement. Interestingly, neither Sutherland nor Callas, whose Lucias have been so celebrated, was instinctively comfortably on the stage. Sutherland’s height always made her feel ungainly and she had to work hard at it; Callas was notoriously off-putting to some audiences who found her forced and awkward to watch. Yet given a role like this, in which the voice itself is able to paint the character, each rose to great dramatic heights. The timing of Callas was mesmerising – the moments of softness, the painful sigh, the dramatic leap to a top note, the telling pause, all created the persona that the plot alone couldn’t do. Sutherland’s grace and grandeur, becoming all the more telling as Lucia sank towards death, was riveting. This opera is an opportunity for a singer with a feeling for the tragedy to turn a simple and even crude plot line into a magnetic performance.
The Holland Park Theatre is a natural place for Lucia. There’s a hint of ruin in the building itself, the sense of the dark outdoors beyond, and that wonderful broad stage for the playing out of Lucia’s fall. It’s a theatre made for people to lurk in the wings, for ancient wrongs and deceptions to do their worst, for raw drama.
Opera is sometimes a matter of complexity and contemplation, and an intellectual challenge. But not this one. Donizetti, the master comic entertainer of Don Pasquale, was producing a stage drama that simply let the blood course through the veins. He uses the conventions of his time, but writes music that transforms them – the sextet has been a show stopper for the whole life of the opera – and manages to take characters who might be cardboard in other hands and make them the objects of pity and sympathy.From the drumbeat in the overture, to the painfully simple wedding march that will herald disaster, through the mad scene to Edgardo’s collapse this is a score with a tragic drive that makes for theatrical excitement every time. This is opera to drink in deep, draining draughts. Cheers!