Metropolitan Opera’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’

Joseph Calleja (Edgardo) and Natalie Dessay (Lucia) rehearsing Gaetano Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" in 2011.(Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
Joseph Calleja (Edgardo) and Natalie Dessay (Lucia) rehearsing Gaetano Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" in 2011.(Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

The Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor will stream live in high definition to movie theaters worldwide on Saturday, March 19 at 1:30 p.m.

The cast of this production includes: Natalie Dessay, Joseph Callega, Ludovic Tesier and Kwunghul Youn. Patrick Summers conducts.  The production staged by Mary Zimmerman with lighting by T.J. Gerckens.

History of Lucia di Lammermoor

For years Lucia di Lammermoor was one of the few Donizetti operas performed. The Donizetti renaissance began (slowly) in Italy in the 1930s, then flourished from the mid fifties to the mid seventies, thanks to Herbert von Karajan, Tullio Serafin, Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills.

Prior to this time, Lucia was performed in a heavily cut version, showcasing the prima donna at the expense of much of the score. Once in a while they’d throw in a good tenor (if the soprano didn’t demand all the money).

Lucia di Lammermoor is based on Walter Scott’s novel, The Bride of Lammermoor. It’s easy to read the opera as a Victorian ghost story: Miss Janet Dalrymple is forced into a loveless marriage for political ends. She turns her back on her beloved Lord Ravenswood (a family enemy) then kills her hapless bridegroom on her wedding night. Madness! Insanity! Miss Dalrymple could not have come to this conclusion on her own.

Passion, Sexuality and Hysteria

Scott, writing in 1819, used insanity to hide a woman’s passion and sexuality. Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) preceded the erotic ballets, like Giselle and Les sylphides, where a woman’s sexuality was expressed through psychoses and fantasy – she could be sexual if she was crazy and preternatural.

If you begin with the darkness of Scott’s novel, then you begin to approach Donizetti’s music with new ears. Lines such as Lucia’s “Egli e luce da i gorni miei” (“He is the light of my days”) need an edge of hysteria to take full effect.

Beverly Sills understood this better than anyone. Galli-Curci, Lily Pons and Nellie Melba – a hundred years ago – were all considered musically superb but decorative, at best.

While the diva playing Lucia must sing well, indeed formidably, it is the tenor who needs the greatest voice.

The great love duet in Act I is undecorated, the high notes are written in the score to punctuate it with passion. One strong and one weak artist would have diluted the performance. Such in NOT the case here:

This voice re-popularized Lucia di Lammermoor in the 1950s. It is unlovely. It is disturbing, even ugly.

We don’t know how the first Lucia, Fanny Tacchinardi (Persiani, 1812-1867), sounded, nor how much of the original score she actually sung. We do know she was admired by Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi, all of whom wrote operas for her.

The first night’s tenor, Gilbert Duprez (1806-1896) “invented” the tenor high C as sung from the chest, rather than the falsetto head tones then in use. To 1835 ears, Fanny would have sounded gentle and hysterical and Duprez dangerous. It’s a good balance for this opera.

A New Met Opera Production

The Metropolitan gives us French soprano Natalie Dessay. Billed as a coloratura, she is not afraid to use her voice to express madness and despair. She sings the notes but she also colors the notes with the words.

Her tenor is a terrific young man from Malta, Joseph Calleja. Dessay is a bit like Beverly Sills, who would shout or cry rather than sing angelically in a tragic situation.

(The coloratura voice can sing stratospheric notes but they can also lack color.)

Again, take this dark work seriously, as a record of a woman’s frustrated desire leading to insanity. Donizetti knew what he was doing.

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