Raising ghosts

Article by Alexandra Coghlan

Lucia di Lammermoor is something of a paradox. A hit at its Italian premiere in 1835, Donizetti’s tragic romance has since become one of the most-performed operas in the repertoire, as well as one of the most enduringly popular with audiences, drawn back again and again for the vocal thrills of the mad scene and the beauty of the composer’s melodies. Yet the early 20th century saw Donizetti’s work all but banished from the stage, its unfashionable excesses seemingly beyond rehabilitation. Schumann mocked Donizetti’s work as “music for a puppet theatre”, while Wagner famously likened the composer’s orchestration to a “big guitar”. So who was right?

“Until recently Donizetti wasn’t respectable enough for musicology,” wrote Winton Dean in 1974. This may seem astonishing, but few composers have suffered more from the impact of musical fashion than Donizetti and his contemporaries. History, Churchill reminded us, is written by the victors, and nowhere is this more true than in the case of bel canto.

This florid style, lively with technical bravura and vocal embellishment, is now synonymous with Italian opera of the early 19th century, but it’s a term that developed (or was, at any rate, hijacked) retrospectively – a subtle smear-campaign used to distinguish the genre from the new developments of German Romanticism. While the Romantic works of Wagner were philosophy enacted in music, striving towards the mystical potency of the unique work of art, the bel canto operas of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti became meretricious musical showcases, concerned with beauty and nothing more.

As culturally conservative as they were politically revolutionary, the Italians took to Romanticism in their own way and at their own – slower – pace. Embracing “pathos and politics” rather than the supernatural preoccupations of their German counterparts, the composers yoked the new Romantic philosophies to the questions of nationalism that were so urgent a concern to a nation still recovering from Napoleonic rule. Thus while Germany revelled in the metaphysical folklore of Weber’s Der Freischütz and Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, Italy’s national soul swelled instead to L’italiana in Algeri, Nabucco and eventually Tosca.

But while the idealistic, striving hero of Romanticism might be the figurehead of German 19th century opera, Italy eventually found its own icon in the tragic heroine of Romanticism’s shadowy ‘Other’ – the Gothic. The mad wife in Romanticism’s cultural attic, Gothic literature and art – art intended to inspire a mind-opening terror – provided a haven for all society’s ghoulish fears, driven underground by Enlightenment rationalism. Born in Edmund Burke’s doctrine of the “sublime” and fostered by the fiction of William Beckford, Horace Walpole, Matthew (‘Monk’) Lewis, and later Mrs Radcliffe, this marginal genre gave whispered voice to fears too potent for mainstream art.

For although the French Revolution and the pan-European havoc of Napoleon’s wars was past, Europe in the early years of the 19th century continued to seethe with social unrest. Greece, the Balkan states, Italy, England and France all faced bloody struggles for reform or independence, as the collapse of Metternich’s post-war congresses left truces unenforced and treaties under threat. Rationalism had resulted in the excesses of Robespierre and 20 years of slaughter. The time was ripe for superstition and its attendant ghosts and omens to come howling out of the grave to console a harrowed people.

Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor might be a gem of bel canto – a work whose melodic invention is matched by the technical brilliance of its execution – but it was also a musical act of revolution. Shunning the easy comedies of his early days and turning increasingly to tragedy, Donizetti pioneered a vernacular operatic melodrama, flexible, bold and expressive enough to reflect the anxieties and social dramas of his age. Far from a mere postlude to Rossini, Donizetti’s music was rather a harbinger of Verdi, and Lucia di Lammermoor – hailed by Tolstoy, Flaubert and Zola as the essence of Romantic sensibility – one of the composer’s loudest trumpet calls.

As with most revolutions, however, Lucia was not launched without struggle. Early successes with operas such as Anna Bolena (1830) and L’elisir d’amore (1832) led the young Donizetti to venture beyond his native Italy, moving like so many artists before him to Paris. But unlike the younger Bellini, Donizetti’s work met with no striking success, and he soon returned to his role in the Royal Theatres of Naples. The trip seems to have invigorated both the composer’s determination and his ambition, however, because he started work almost immediately on an adaptation of Walter Scott’s novel of warring Scottish clans, The Bride of Lammermoor.

Confronting the notoriously conservative Neapolitan censors and the bankruptcy of the Teatro San Carlo (“The crisis is at hand: the public have indigestion, the Società Teatrale is about to be dissolved, Vesuvius is smoking and the eruption is near”, he wrote) – Donizetti cajoled and coerced his opera into being, and was rewarded with unprecedented success. Writing to his publisher Ricordi, the composer recalled that “every piece was listened to in religious silence and honoured with spontaneous vivas”.

While in hindsight such success seems inevitable, Donizetti’s progressive approach to musical structure – wriggling persistently free of the stranglehold of the cavatina-cabaletta aria form – and his tentative grasping towards an integrated music-drama must have seemed a risk indeed. His choice of subject matter was also not without its issues. Years later Verdi’s Macbeth suffered with the Italian critics for its bloodiness, and Donizetti’s Maria di Rudenz was censured for its “tear-stained, blood-stained” theme. Yet such was the pervasive popularity of Scott that his work seems to have transcended the problems of its genre, and Donizetti was one of several Italian composers to adapt this particular novel.

Opera as a genre was a natural fit for the Gothic preoccupations of Romanticism. Mad scenes, ghostly visions, sleepwalking and murder were the bread and butter of the art of Monteverdi, Handel and even Mozart. Yet Scott’s novels insisted on a new development, seeking not “to excite fear of supernatural things” in the readers, but instead “to show the effect of such fear upon the agents in the story”. The genre had taken a psychological turn, and it is this interiority and emotional richness that seems to have spurred Donizetti to build so successfully on the experimentation he first attempted in Anna Bolena, Lucrezia Borgia and Maria Stuarda.

The novel’s charged plot and atmospheric setting in the remote Scottish Borders demanded something new from the composer, and his commitment to a new genre of Italian melodrama is imprinted in the musical fabric of the work. While Donizetti is often criticised for his sparse and unimaginative use of the orchestra (and certainly compared to his contemporaries Pacini and Mercadante his orchestration is strikingly thin), in Lucia such clarity is reinvented to new dramatic advantage.

Chromatic colorations catch the ear, and the individual characters of flutes (their woody tone so often associated with the passive Lucia) and horns (whose sombre opening salvo in the Prelude transforms so miraculously into the Act 1 hunting horns, their texture further reinvented through the opera) emerge with greater impact from the orchestra, attempting something more than just accompaniment. The cello sidles forward to take up Edgardo’s ‘Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali’ in the tomb scene, supplementing and supporting the gasps of the suffering hero, while in Lucia’s Act 2 encounter with Enrico her muted responses to his recitative are taken on by solo instrumental interjections – a convincing gesture toward interior musical psychology, and one developed even further in the use of the glass harmonica as Lucia’s ghostly, subconscious double in the mad scene.

Such new emphasis on the orchestra also enables Donizetti to introduce dramatic irony into his music – not the laboured humour of the comedies, but the weighty, tragic irony that would achieve its fullest working-out in Verdi’s late operas. The A major that accompanies Lucia’s reluctant signing of the marriage contract returns suddenly to mock the heroine when Edgar appears. The offbeat, descending motif heard in the same scene also recurs, this time in the mad scene recitative; Lucia struggles to keep a grip on the melody and its tonality, and it eventually becomes transformed by her imagination into a wedding hymn for her marriage to Edgardo.

Donizetti further subverts musical convention, investing the obligatory major-key close to arias with unbearable pathos (Edgar’s ‘Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali’ is perhaps the most poignant example), and of course manipulating the familiar structures of bel canto. His innovation of the slower cabaletta (full of pathos rather than sentiment) in place of the classic bravura display of skill tells of his commitment to emotional authenticity. Lucia’s Act 1 aria ‘Regnava nel silenzio/Quando rapita in estasi’ makes a persuasive dramatic case, but its lack of technical showiness so frustrated Donizetti’s soprano Fanny Tacchinardi-Persiani that after the original run she substituted a more florid alternative from the composer’s own Rosmonda d’Inghilterra (a substitution the composer himself endorsed for the French edition of the opera).

Ensembles also find themselves reworked to fit Donizetti’s newly fluid drama, and while this doesn’t always succeed (the absurd insistence of the chorus during the mad scene on their atrocious melody) when musical structure and dramatic development come together as exactly as in Lucia and Edgardo’s Act 1 duet ‘Veranno a te sull’aure’, or the closing sextet of Act 2, they achieve a Mozartian intensity. Donizetti’s desire to “throw off the yoke” of finale conventions is more than fulfilled here in an ensemble deemed by Puccini the finest in opera, a piece that not only reinforces the position and relationships of each character, but also develops them.

But while Donizetti may have adjusted his music to fit Scott’s brand of Gothic melodrama, the composer and his librettist Salvadore Cammarano (who would go on to become a frequent collaborator of Verdi’s) had few qualms about adapting the book to fit their vision of operatic romanticism. The changes they made are few but revealing.

In place of Scott’s villainess Lady Ashton, Donizetti offers Lucia’s evil brother Enrico. It may be that the Italian operatic tradition of the loving mother was just too strong to overcome, but Donizetti’s substitution also plays to the political undertones of Gothic that persistently stress the abuse of the female by repressive (and often perverse) patriarchal authority. The fact that Enrico and Arturo, his chosen husband for Lucia, are both baritones also aligns the characters, establishing Arturo musically as a substitute for Enrico himself – the socially acceptable face of his (inevitably) incestuous desire.

Some changes to Scott’s plot can readily be understood in terms of theatrical practicality. Edgardo’s death by quicksand becomes a more aria-friendly suicide, and the inconvenient survival of Lucy’s husband in the novel is resolved by more effective stabbing. Yet while Scott leaves the violence deliberately oblique, never ruling out the possibility of supernatural intervention, the more conservative Donizetti seems eager to restrict events to the explicable. Unlike Lucy, Lucia is granted an extended, almost baroque scene of madness in which to express her trauma and guilt.

The Act 3 mad scene is for many the musical pinnacle of the opera. Yet, surrounded by so much structural innovation, the episode is striking for its conventionality. It’s as though the heightened excess of this classic Gothic scene – the disturbed, ghost-like heroine, her white nightdress covered in blood – already offered enough provocation. Donizetti restricts his innovation to quoting from earlier melodies, deftly rendering in his music the associative thought processes of his heroine, and harnessing the obligatory coloratura cadenzas to real psychological motivation. This is a rebellion all the more potent for its subtlety.

According to E.T.A. Hoffman it was Beethoven who first set in motion the “lever of fear, of awe, of horror, and suffering… who awaken[ed] that infinite longing which is the essence of Romanticism”. This may be so, but the subsequent monopoly of German composers on the philosophy is an altogether more provocative claim. Romanticism’s chief preoccupations – melancholy and fate – find vivid life in the best operas of Donizetti, never far away even among the smiles of Don Pasquale or L’elisir d’amore.

While Wagnerian music-drama lives and suffers for the ideals of Romanticism, pragmatic bel canto, with its cut-out-and-keep musical numbers, refuses to do so. Yet in the hands of Donizetti the genre reached further and risked more, turning increasingly away from comedy and facing the darker horrors and fears of the age. Dressing these up in the lyrical melodies and reassuring harmonies of bel canto, Donizetti was able to create a genre both popular and serious, an operatic model that would culminate so incomparably in Verdi, where the excesses of Romanticism were ultimately to be tempered by the naturalistic urges of verismo.

Alexandra Coghlan is the classical music critic for the New Statesman. She has written on the arts for The Times, The Guardian, Prospect, Time Out and Opera Now