Matters of the Met – Lucia

Last night we watched the Metropolitan Opera’s 2009 presentation of Lucia di Lammermoor with Anna Netrebko singing the riveting role of Lucia.

Anna Netrebko as Lucia

This tragic opera, written by Donizetti, premiered in Naples during September 1835. It was a hit. Here is a copy of a lithograph of the first Lucia on stage.

Fanny Tacchinardi-Persiani 1839 London premiere

Scotland, its history and culture had become interesting to Europe in the 1830s and Sir Walter Scott’s novels were immensely popular throughout Europe. So Donizetti’s opera was a hit right from the beginning. It languished for some time later on but now is the most performed of all Donizetti’s serious operas. So says Sir Denis Forman – A Night at the Opera.

Book cover of Night at the Opera

Marvellous book by the way.

I don’t want to write a critique of the opera. My husband is far better able than I to undertake that. I just really like it; and anyway I am also interested in literature so that the changes in the storyline between Scott’s novel and Donizetti’s opera intrigue me. It is always called ‘artistic licence’.

Then I started digging further and found the historical incident on which Scott based his novel. It always staggers me that what we think we know represents about 10% of what there is to know. Same as an iceberg! The historical scene took place in the mid 1600s in the Lammermuir Hills.

The Lammermuir Hills are in the East Lothian region of The Borders and the photographs below just make me want to go there (especially in the snow!).

Beautiful Lammermuirs

Grassy Lammermuirs

Dressed in white!

Lammermuir Hills in Spring

The historical time was 1669 (Scott moved the time to just before the Act of Union in 1707 which added a different political flavour to his novel).

The Dalrymples were local landowners in the Lowlands and Janet Dalrymple was of marriageable age. Her father James, 1st Viscount of Stair, incidentally, was sympathetic to the Covenantors and a Scottish lawyer and statesman. He is best known for his great legal work The Institutions of the Law of Scotland deduced from its Originals, and collated with the Civil, Canon and Feudal Laws and with the Customs of Neighbouring Nations. So there!

James’ problem was that he was stuck in his culture and hidebound in tradition in a changing world. That never does work to one’s advantage. However it was a distinguished family and all his five sons made their mark in their chosen professions. Poor Janet was sacrificed as women often were (and still are) into a marriage she seemed not to want. The males of such families were consumed by the acquisition of power and influence and young marriageable women were the honey pot. (Janet Dalrymple becomes the Lucy Ashton of Scott’s novel and Scott develops a feud between the two families that  is probably way over the top – there’s that artistic licence again!).

Scott’s Lucy had exchanged passionate vows with Edgar, Master of Ravenswood, whose family property had been lost to Sir William Ashton. Madly, and with the understanding of the impossibility of a fruitful outcome, Lucy and Edgar promise to love each other forever (This can be traced, sort of, through the historical incident as well).

Baldoon Castle in Bladnoch in Dumfries is now a ruin but it was the family seat of the Dunbars from 1530 to 1800. Scotland is full of ruins – it happens with ancient inhabited countries!

Baldoon Castle Ruins

Sir David Dunbar arranged for his son, also David, to marry Janet. Arranged marriages, especially amongst the upper classes were pretty normal – all to do with forging resource and territory accumulation with political influence.

However Janet had formed an attachment to Archibald, 3rd Lord Rutherford and a Royalist. Unfortunately he was impoverished and Janet’s and his liaison was disregarded in favour of her marriage to David Dunbar. Janet’s mother appears to have been the evil manipulator here. (Donizetti makes Lucia’s brother Enrico the villain in his opera). Scott used stereotypes of feuds to write his novel The Bride of Lammermoor and it was very successful. The hapless husband in Scott’s novel is the Laird of Bucklaw, not killed but seriously wounded.

So far as the actual ‘history’ is concerned, David Dunbar was only wounded; he never, ever talked about what had happened and eventually married again. Archibald, heart-broken at the death of Janet, never married. In Scott’s novel he, as the character Ravenswood, drowns in quicksand on his way to a duel.

Looking through contemporary and later records, I am struck that in the later records, more than a smidgen of woo has entered into the story. Baldoon Castle is supposed to be haunted and Lucia is ‘seen’ and ‘heard’ screaming in her bloodied gown every 12 September which is the supposed date of her death. Ho hum.

Of course, Dame Joan Sutherland was an outstanding Lucia and performed it to acclaim several times. It was her signature role though not her favourite. It was she who gave Lucia’s mad scene such visual power by singing the aria with ’blood’ dripping all over her gown. Edit: In earlier productions, there was the intimation that the ‘blood’ on Lucia’s white gown represented virginal blood and the swooning ladies in the audience didn’t like it. Hahaha – we must have grown to be made of sterner stuff.

Sutherland as Lucia with dagger

There are some great arias including of course the mad scene “Il dolce suono … Spargi d’amaro pianto” which all today’s sopranos sing with ‘blood’ staining Lucia’s white bridal gown while she wields the knife with which she has killed her new husband. It truly is an amazing aria. I say riveting, but it is actually far more heart stopping than that.

There is an extraordinary sextet that is sung at Lucia’s wedding scene that is to be found everywhere. The music was used in Scarface where Camonte whistles “Chi mi frena?” just before murdering his victims. The melody is also used in Scorsese’s  The Departed. It has been lampooned, sung and featured in some form or another in such varied genres as comedy, slapstick, cartoons and fantasy. Actually there are a lot of arias that have been used in different ways throughout the entertainment world. Apparently a number of musical pieces were inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s novel, but I only know of Donizetti’s opera and I suppose that most people are like me.

Novels, history and legends and further fantasy notwithstanding, Lucia di Lammermoor is a wonderful opera with arias that are simply out of this world.

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6 comments on “Matters of the Met – Lucia

  1. Michelle B says:

    What fascinating connections, did not know that the opera was based on a novel written by a Scottish author. Should have realized from the name.

    • Veronique says:

      I could have written an awful lot more about this (and others have written about various aspects of the story) but it would have gone on forever.

      It was terrific reading through anything I could lay my hands on to compose this wee article. Indeed, there are fascinating connections.

  2. I visited Bladnoch last year when staying near Ballantrae (with it’s own novelish connections) but didn’t know about Baldoon Castle and its fascinating links (only got as far as The Bladnoch Distillery I’m afraid); will look out for this next time I’m there.

    • Veronique says:

      Hahaha. I am afraid I may well not make it past the Distillery either. I really want to make ventures all over Scotland. The history is just breathtaking isn’t it?

      Especially for an Aussie like me who has never seen buildings older than a couple of hundred years!!!

  3. Rosie says:

    How little I knew of any of this in the early ’60’s when I saw/heard Joan Sutherland sing Lucia at Covent Garden. I used to get up early in the morning on the day the box office opened for the season, take the first tube to Covent Garden and queue for tickets in the ‘gods’. The dent in the knees was worth every bit of the discomfort of the hard and narrow seating, and I managed the ‘altitude’ too. Joan Sutherland was not a brilliant actor, but she had presence, passion and an extraordinary voice. I heard her in two other operas, but Lucia remains the highlight now as then.

    • Veronique says:

      I really love ferreting information out and this country has so much that it keeps me busy more than it should!!

      Yes Sutherland was something else. I wish I had seen her, in the flesh so to speak, sing this role. Good on you for being in the right place at the right time. I am sure that sore knees notwithstanding, you had a most wonderful time!!

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