I have to admit, all that Strauss last week spoiled me for Donizetti. In comparison to Der Rosenkavalier, the score of Lucia di Lammermoor feels more than a little bland. Pretty in places, but after a while it starts to feel repetitive – and at the risk of sounding mean-spirited, there is a sense in which if you have heard some of Donizetti’s operas, the rest tend not to come as much of a surprise.
This particular opera is the Donizettization of Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor, which I confess I have not read. The libretto is by Salvadore Cammarano. Hugo von Hofmannsthal Cammarano is not, but this is nevertheless an opera the story of which says slightly more than what it was intended to.
According to the libretto the story takes place in Scotland in the early 1700s. Young Lucia is in love with Edgardo, who – according to her brother Enrico’s huntsman Normanno – she first met when she was out walking in the garden and a bull charged her. Edgardo shot the bull, which dropped dead, and the two fell in love. It is unclear to me whether this is intended to be ominous or not. But Edgardo and Enrico are sworn enemies, and so Lucia and Edgardo must keep their love secret. As she waits for Edgardo outdoors, Lucia tells her companion, Alisa, about the ghost of a lady stabbed to death by her lover; the ghost is said to haunt the well nearby. This is definitely ominous.
But Enrico has figured out his sister’s intrigue with Edgardo. He plans to break them up and, for political reasons, to marry her to a guy named Arturo. With a forged letter he convinces Lucia that Edgardo no longer loves her. He and Raimondo, the minister, browbeat her about her duty to her family and in the end Lucia agrees, anguished, to marry Arturo. But she can’t go through with it. On the wedding night, someone hears a yell from the couple’s room and the door is broken down to reveal that Lucia has gone mad and stabbed Arturo to death. Lucia dies soon after, Edgardo stabs himself to death in remorse, and that is the end of the opera.
So, this is a fairly stabby sort of opera. The central stab, though, belongs to Lucia. The original audience probably understood this as a story about a poor girl driven mad by love – but you can also read this as a story about Lucia’s attempt and failure to determine the course of her own life. Because she’s the heroine and thus a good girl she cannot be heartless and ignore her brother’s political interests; but neither can she betray both herself and Edgardo and leap under the bridal duvet with a man she does not love. Violence is the result – but because this is a 19th-century story, the young lady’s violence is covered up and explained by madness. She has to go crazy, or else she simply could not do what she does. Madness is the only exit. And she has to die, because according to 19th-century storytelling conventions she can’t do what she does and recover – actions like Lucia’s have to be contained.
(Next part here.)