Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (2009)

I had intended to skip this opera, the sixth in the series that the New York Metropolitan Opera is streaming for free, because I had never heard of it before but commenter enkidu recommended it as one of their favorite operas so I changed my mind and watched it yesterday and I am glad I did so. (Thanks, enkidu!) This opera does not have the show-stopping rousing arias that can be heard in Carmen or La Traviata which may be why it has not percolated as much into general public consciousness but the music is worth listening to nonetheless. There is a nice harp solo that kicks off Act II.

The story is the ever popular Romeo and Juliet one of star-crossed lovers. In this case, Lucia and Edgardo belong to two families that hate each other due to an unexplained backstory. Both once-wealthy families have fallen on hard times. After swearing their love for each other, Edgardo goes away for a while to France to restore his family’s fortunes. During that time, Lucia’s brother Enrico arranges a marriage for her to Arturo as a way of restoring their family fortunes. Lucia does not want to go through with this marriage but Enrico conspires with the family priest Ronaldo to use a forged letter to convince Lucia that Edgardo has abandoned her and taken up with another woman. She reluctantly agrees.

But on the night of her wedding, just after she has signed the marriage contract, Edgardo returns and when he discovers what she has signed, he flies into a rage and accuses her of betraying him. Enrico, Ronaldo, and the other guests force him to leave. Lucia then stabs Arturo to death, goes mad, and dies, presumably of a broken heart. When Edgardo hears of this, he kills himself. All this happens in the hours between sunset and sunrise, which is a pretty fast moving storyline by any measure. But as I have learned, it is churlish to pick holes in an opera’s plot. Even if one notices them, one should let them go and just focus on the music.

Here is a lovely sextet from the production I saw yesterday. It takes place just after Lucia has signed the contract, where the photographer is setting up a portrait of the wedding party oblivious to the rising tension all around him.

Female leads do not seem to fare well in these operas. When it comes to dying at the end, the heroines are 5 for 5 in the operas I have watched this week: two from tuberculosis, one a suicide, one is killed, and one dies of a broken heart. Usually the heroine’s tragic death song marks the end of the opera but in Lucia di Lammermoor, Lucia dies in the penultimate scene and it is Edgardo’s death that ends the opera. This seemed like an anti-climax to me, even though Lucia appears in the final scene as a silent ghostly apparition hovering over him as he dies singing of his love for her. I was really impressed by the performance of Piotr Beczala who played Edgardo and even more so when I learned that he had stepped into the role at the last minute for the regular singer who was ill that day. He was deservedly given major applause at the end.

I enjoyed the opera but felt bad that the good people in the story, Lucia, Edgardo, and the hapless Arturo (who unwittingly and through no fault of his own gets dragged into this conflict) all die while the villains Enrico and Ronaldo suffer no consequences for their chicanery and disregard for Lucia’s happiness. In Romeo and Juliet too a priest is involved in the young lovers’ deaths but there he had their interests at heart and was trying to help them except that his dopey plan went agley. In this case the priest was conniving with the evil brother to destroy Lucia’s chance for happiness.

Once again, as with La Traviata, I am puzzled by the choice of setting. The composer is Italian, the opera is in Italian, the characters’ names are all Italian, and yet Donizetti set the opera in Scotland. The reason for this is that Donizetti’s opera is based loosely on the novel The Bride of Lammermoor by Walter Scott that was set in the Lammeruir hills of Scotland and tells the story of the doomed love of Lucy Ashton and her family’s enemy Edgar Ravenwood. While Donizetti retained unchanged the two family last names, he Italianized the first names. Why remain faithful to the novel in these trivial ways? Why not for consistency change the setting to Italy or keep the first names also unchanged, since the basic story is universal and timeless?

Today’s opera offering is Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. I expect to hear a lot of his trademark lush romanticism.


  1. mnb0 says

    “Today’s opera offering is Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. I expect to hear a lot of his trademark lush romanticism.”
    Then I hope you won’t be disappointed. The very famous letter scene for the heroine -- the real main character btw -- lacks any drama. That’s an important reason Tchaikovsky was shy to call Evgenij Onegin an opera, preferring “lyrical scenes”.

    PS: sorry, I posted my first comment before finishing your article. As for “why” my guess is to please the Italian audience. Scotland was for them quite exotic but at the other hand didn’t want to alienate them by becoming too extreme in this respect.

  2. flex says

    Hmm. Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor was published in 1819, was a big hit, although it may have taken a year or two before it was translated into Italian.

    Then a composer writes an opera which is first performed in 1835 (15 years later) based on it…. changing some details to make the very successful novel more accessible for the audience. Many of whom would never have read it, but were aware of how famous it was. Like the first Harry Potter book being titled, Harry Potter and the Philosphers Stone being changed to Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone” for the American market. Or literally thousands of other examples of how a successful work in one form of media is changed when translated into a different one.

    Frankly, I don’t see what Donizetti did was all that unusual. At least in the world of media. This wouldn’t fly in the world of mathematics (unless your name was Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevski).

  3. flex says

    Damn italics closure tags. 🙁

    [I took the liberty of closing the italics for you. -- MS]

  4. Bethany says

    My theory on women dying in opera: never sing about how much you love a guy. Women who sing such songs generally die, while women who don’t usually live.

  5. Allison says

    never sing about how much you love a guy. Women who sing such songs generally die, while women who don’t usually live.

    The same is true in real life. “Love,” or at least romantic love, is almost always a bad bargain for women. Even the Wife of Bath (from Canterbury Tales) knew that.

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