In Search of Lucia di Lammermoor
My grandmother loved music. Every Friday night we climbed the three flights of stairs to the top of her house together. Up there in the attic she revealed a lifetime of music to me through the scratches and crackles of her old vinyl collection. From Rimsky Korsakov to Tchaikovsky, Brahms to Berlioz, the arias of Maria Callas, the gypsy songs of Joan Baez, Scheherazade, Carmen, Swan Lake, Rigoletto. We listened to them all.
All except one.
This was the one I pulled down from the shelf, over and over. A bride stared out from the cover sleeve. She was down on one knee, arms outstretched, her white dress streaked crimson with blood, her eyes wild and full. I was convinced she was trying to tell me something. My grandmother would shake her head:
‘Lucia di Lammermoor. The mad scene is unbearable.’
I thought it must be terrifying; I didn’t know why.
Donizetti, the Italian composer of bel canto opera was drawn to troubled women in operas such as Lucrezia Borgia and Anna Bolena. But the mad scene of Lucia di Lammermoor is the one for which he is famous.
Female insanity was a useful dramatic trope in bel canto opera, a conduit for elaborate musical cadenzas. Yet in Lucia di Lammermoor, Donizetti stated his wish to faithfully portray a woman’s mental disintegration. The story is taken from Walter Scott’s 17th century tale, The Bride of Lammermoor. Lucia is in love with one man but forced into an arranged marriage with another for the sake of the family’s political alliances.
The opera’s mad scene comes in Act III. Lucia, placed in an impossible situation and suffering mental breakdown, appears on stage covered in blood, having stabbed her bridegroom on their wedding night. And here at Act III, Scene II is where the opera culminates in the aria ‘Il Dolce Suono’ which translates to ‘the sweet sound’ in the english libretto. As with all arias, the piece demands a virtuoso performance of astonishing vocal technique. Lucia then kills herself.
Death is no stranger to the bel canto stage.
When I finally heard Lucia di Lammermoor I reached this scene expecting all the fire and fury of a woman driven mad by circumstance. Yet instead of a raging, dangerous woman, I discovered in this aria the ethereal and exquisitely sung lament of a woman trapped and haunted by unpalatable reality and lost possibilities. I wondered then at my grandmother, a Scandinavian who had settled in England for my grandfather, giving up her career as a translator and interpreter to raise two sons.
Perhaps to hear Lucia was to regret lost possibilities of her own?
The fascination with the so-called ‘female malady’ is nothing new. The imagery of the mad woman runs through the arts like a dark flowing river, from the fictions of Bronte’s Bertha Mason, the first Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre and Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White to the harsh realities of the lives of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath and their struggles with mental illness. Their stories may be many and varied, but they are united in the frustrations and limitations externally imposed on women by society.
Yet just as Jean Rhys reimagined Bertha Mason as Antoinette Cosway in Wide Sargasso Sea, so too a recent production of Lucia di Lammermoor at the Royal Opera House (2015-2016 with Diana Damrau in the role of Lucia) cast a different light on Lucia.
The director, Sarah Mitchell, wished to give Lucia more agency, setting the opera in the 1840s, closer to the time it was written and a significant period of progression for the feminist movement. The character of Lucia was gradually redefined as a person of depth and intelligence with hopes and aspirations, ultimately failed by the men around her. There was nothing easy about this onstage metamorphosis. It was a struggle, hard fought, hard won. But I heard this Lucia at last, bloodstained from miscarriage as well as murder reclaiming her breathtaking final aria not as caged bird but as bold, defiant heretic.
After all this time Lucia had found her voice.
Terrifying and emancipating.