Lucia di Lammermoor is an opera of “love, death, and despair.” Philip Roth says that there is only death and sex, and those who create operas seem to largely agree, coyly substituting love for sex.
I sat in a very comfortable seat in the Clapham Picture House, watched the opera, and, I must confess, snoozed a few times. The music and the singing were superb, with the soprano, Diana Damrau, and the tenor, Charles Castronovo, the best of the cast. The opera belongs to the soprano, and it’s the great bel canto part. The “mad scene,” where the soprano must reach the highest notes, is opera’s greatest challenge to a soprano. It seemed to me that Damrau reached the notes easily.
The opera is taken from Walter Scott’s novel, but Katie Mitchell’s production was set in the 1830s when, she said, feminism was beginning. Mitchell wanted to show Lucia as a determined woman rather than a drooping beauty hounded by fate. I’d say she succeeded, but she didn’t succeed in everything.
Lucia is the sister of Enrico, whose only hope of escaping ruin is to marry his sister to the rich Arturo. She, however, is in love with Edgardo, the arch enemy of Enrico. In scene II Lucia waits for Edgardo meet at night beside the tomb of a woman murdered by one of Edgardo’s ancestors. It’s all very gothic. Lucia’s maid urges Lucia to give up “this terrifying love.” She answers:
“He brings light to my days,
and solace to my suffering.
When, lost in ecstasy
of ardent passion,
with the language of the heart,
he swears eternal love,
I forget my sorrows
and joy dries my tears,
and it seems that when I am near him,
heaven opens for me.”
Edgardo arrives, and they make love beside the tomb. The music expressed their love perfectly, and in the “old days” of opera they would have stared into each other’s eyes and sang the exquisite duet. That will no longer suffice. As they sang, they undressed each other, although both kept their lower half clothed. They then fucked in time with the music in a way that was wholly unconvincing and just silly.
They part, but she asks that he write:
Ah, if sometimes you think of me
and send me a letter,
fresh hopes will fortify
my fleeting life.
In Act II Enrico discovers through a letter than Lucia is in love with Edgardo but insists that she must marry Arturo. Enrico gives Lucia a forged letter that says that Edgardo now loves another woman. Beaten down and devastated Lucia agrees to marry Arturo, who is a singularly uninspiring character. The wedding dinner looked wonderful with the chorus crammed around the table in dark suits creating a picture like one by Henri Fantin-Latour. It took me a while to realise that many of the “men” were women, although I’d wondered how an all male chorus covered such a wide scale.
Lucia signs the marriage certificate just as Edgardo returns. He pulls the ring from her finger and curses her. Beginning to fall apart, Lucia takes Arturo to bed while the guests continue to celebrate the wedding. This is where the decision to split the stage into two worked against the production. Mitchell had chosen to show what would not be seen in a standard production, so while the wedding guests celebrated we saw Lucia seduce and then murder Arturo. Unfortunately it took her and her maid a long time, both stabbing and suffocating him. He thrashed around in a way that looked ridiculous, and evidently on the first night some of the audience burst into laughter.
The splendid chorus of the wedding guests (D’immenso giubilo) is interrupted when the guests hear that Lucia has murdered Arturo. Now comes “the mad scene” with the difficult but superb singing. Lucia thinks that she is marrying Edgardo:
Every rare pleasure
I shall share with you.
Life for us will be
a gentle smile from heaven.
But she is dying. Back at the tomb, Edgardo is feeling awful about being betrayed and longing for death. Then wedding guests tell him that Lucia is dying. He rushes to her, as she dies in a large, old fashioned bath, but is too late. He sings his final aria (Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali), and stabs himself.
You who spread your wings to Heaven,
o sweet loving heart,
look down on me serenely,
and let your true love soar up to join you.
Ah, though mortal’s fury
so cruelly assailed us,
though we were parted on earth,
may God unite us in Heaven,
O sweet, loving heart,
may God unite us.
For years I struggled with the absurdity of opera—the ludicrous plots, excessive emotion, and singing of sentences like “Please pass the salt”—but now I can’t get enough of it.