Mad About Donizetti's 'Lucie Di Lammermoor'

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With blood-stained dagger in hand, Lucie wanders, disorientedly, amid the wedding guests, apparently unaware that she'd just murdered her finace. Sarah Coburn sings an excerpt of one of opera's premier mad scenes.

Sopranos Gone Mad

Hear famous recordings of the mad scene from Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" by some of the role's greatest interpreters.

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  • "Lucia di Lammermoor: Mad Scene (excerpt)"
  • Album: Prima Voce: Tetrazzini
  • Artist: Luisa Tetrazzini
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  • Released: 1990
 
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  • "Lucia di Lammermoor: Mad Scene"
  • Album: Live in Concert
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Soprano Sarah Coburn in the title role of Donizetti's "Lucie de Lammermoor." i i

hide captionSoprano Sarah Coburn sings the famous mad scene in Donizetti's Lucie de Lammermoor at Glimmerglass Opera.

George Mott / Glimmerglass Opera
Soprano Sarah Coburn in the title role of Donizetti's "Lucie de Lammermoor."

Soprano Sarah Coburn sings the famous mad scene in Donizetti's Lucie de Lammermoor at Glimmerglass Opera.

George Mott / Glimmerglass Opera

In opera, as in life, it's often a mad, mad, mad, mad world. So it's no surprise that mad scenes in opera abound. They represent a chance for a singer to strut his — or usually her — stuff, with vocal pyrotechnics that can run as wild as the character's deranged mind.

Of all of opera's unhinged ladies, the title character in Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor sets something of a gold standard for going bonkers. Forced into marrying someone she detests, Lucia stumbles into act three, wielding a bloody knife, freshly used to slice up her betrothed, all the while hallucinating and rambling on about the man she really loves.

Lucia's mad scene is long and intricate, with vocal lines that stab, float and fly off in many directions. It can be a tour de force for a great soprano with the dramatic and technical skills.

Lucia di Lammermoor was the 47th of Donizetti's roughly 65 operas, and it was a huge success at its 1835 premiere in Naples. And from there it spread: Three years later, it played in eight cities from Portugal to Poland; the year after that, it played in six more, including Algiers and Odessa, and from there to Havana, St. Petersburg and other cities.

By the time Lucia was produced in Paris in 1839, French composer Hector Berlioz announced that Donizetti's conquest of Parisian theaters was complete. And he wasn't happy about it. Donizetti — and other composers of the bel canto style — was all the rage, pushing aside the heavier works, like Berlioz's own operas.

By the early 1840s, Donizetti was splitting his time between Paris and Vienna, living about half the year in each city. He still managed to squeeze in trips to Italy, all the while working on new projects and supervising the staging of older ones. In fact, the older he got, the more he worked; he enjoyed his hectic pace.

But it wasn't only the music world that was taken by the Donizetti storm. Lucia di Lammermoor appears in novels, as well. Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Where Angels Fear to Tread — all feature performances of the opera as part of their stories.

Donizetti based his opera on the highly popular novel by Sir Walter Scott called The Bride of Lammermoor. It's about as Gothic a tragedy as you can get — primitive, windswept landscapes, castle ruins, blood feuds, ghosts, murder and madness. It's all there.

In this edition of World of Opera, Lucia di Lammermoor has even something more — French language. Host Lisa Simeone presents Lucie di Lammermoor, Donizetti's retooled version of the original that he prepared for the Theatre de le Renaissance, in Paris. Those familiar with the Italian version may be surprised to find a few differences, among them the shortening of the role of the chaplain, and the removal of the role of the maid, Alisa, leaving Lucia as the only woman in the opera.

This production, from Glimmerglass Opera, stars Sarah Coburn in the title role of Lucie and Raul Hernandez as her lover, Edgard.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story of 'Lucie di Lammermoor'

Who's Who?

Sarah Coburn ....................... Lucie

Raúl Hernández ................. Edgard

Earl Patriarco ......................... Henri

Byron Grohman .................. Gilbert

Chad A. Johnson ................. Arthur

Craig Philips ................... Raymond

Glimmerglass Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Beatrice Jona Affron, conductor

Soprano Sarah Coburn and tenor Raúl Hernández in "Lucie de Lammermoor"

hide captionLucie (Sarah Coburn) and Edgard (Raúl Hernández) declare their (forbidden) love in Lucie de Lammermoor, at Glimmerglass Opera.

George Mott / Glimmerglass Opera
Soprano Sarah Coburn

hide captionSoprano Sarah Coburn slowly becomes unhinged, playing the title role in Glimmerglass Opera's production of Lucie de Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti.

George Mott / Glimmerglass Opera

ACT ONE:The opera is the story of a woman — Lucia, or, in this French version, Lucie — who murders her new husband after being forced to marry him through the deception of her brother, Henri.

Henri has taken over Ravenswood castle. Actually, he has swindled the property from its rightful heir, a man named Edgard, with whom Lucie is in love. Lucie and Edgard have been meeting each morning in a remote part of the castle grounds.

As the opera opens, Henri's men are busy combing the area for a reported intruder. The Captain of the Guard, Gilbert, informs Henri and his chaplain Raymond that in the past his sister has been seen with Edgard. Henri says he'd rather see Lucie struck by lightning than see her in the arms of his enemy.

In the next scene, we meet Lucie. She's at the ruins of an old fountain, where she and Edgard have been secretly meeting. In an aria, Lucie tells of visions. She's seen the ghost of a woman who died at the well, beckoning to her. Then Edgard arrives, telling Lucie that he will leave for France tomorrow. She is sad, but the two declare their love in a duet where the voices wind around each other. They exchange rings before Edgard leaves.

ACT TWO: Meanwhile, Lucie's brother Henri has arranged for her to marry Arthur, whose wealth and position will help Henri secure the Ravenswood estate for good. And, to trick Lucie into agreeing to the marriage, Gilbert has conveniently forged a letter. It's supposedly from Edgard, telling Lucie that he has found a new lover.

The wedding guests arrive, along with the groom. Lucie, in a daze after reading the forgery, reluctantly signs the marriage contract. Then, to everyone's surprise, Edgard bursts into the room, ready to claim Lucie as his own. At this point, we hear the famous sextet ("Chi mi frena in tal momento," in the original Italian version), where the principal characters each express mixed emotions. Seeing Lucie's signature on the contract, Edgard curses her and throws back the ring she gave him. A fight between Edgard and Henri nearly erupts, before Edgard is convinced to leave Ravenswood castle.

ACT THREE opens with a thunderstorm. Edgard has left the wedding and is holed up in a deserted tower on the castle grounds, brooding. He hears someone approach. It's Lucie's brother Henri, coming to challenge Edgard to a duel in the graveyard the following morning.

Back at the Castle, the wedding party is still in full swing. But everyone freezes when they see the look on Raymond's face. He reports that while checking up on the newlyweds in their chamber, he found Lucie, bloody dagger in hand, standing over the body of her new husband, clearly out of her mind.

Lucie herself appears, in a bloodstained nightgown. It's her big mad scene — a 15-minute rollercoaster ride of incredibly florid music — a challenge for even the best sopranos to get right both technically and dramatically. In her delirium, Lucie hallucinates. She imagines herself back with Edgard, about to be married, but she also flashes back to her dream from Act One — a dead woman at the fountain trying to separate them. The wedding guests look on in horror, and Lucie finally faints. Henri returns to find his sister crazed and Arthur murdered.

Although Donizetti's opera clearly focuses on the plight of Lucie, the final part of Act Three is reserved for Edgard, who gets two fine arias. It's sunrise, the morning after the wedding, and Edgard is waiting in the cemetery, ready for his duel with Henri. He has decided he can't live without Lucie, so he plans to let Henri kill him. Edgard learns that Lucie has lost her senses and is on her deathbed, calling out his name. But as he heads for the Castle, bells ring and Raymond appears, telling him it's too late — Lucie has died. Edgard prays that he'll meet her in heaven. Although the crowd tries to stop him, Edgard pulls out his dagger, stabs himself and falls dead.

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Live in Concert

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  • Album: Live in Concert
  • Artist: Maria Callas
  • Label: EMI
  • Released: 1997
 

Prima Voce: Tetrazzini

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  • Album: Prima Voce: Tetrazzini
  • Artist: Luisa Tetrazzini
  • Label: Nimbus
  • Released: 1990
 

La Stupenda: The Supreme Voice of Joan Sutherland

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  • Album: La Stupenda: The Supreme Voice of Joan Sutherland
  • Artist: Joan Sutherland
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