July 6, 2018

If opera characters wrote haiku

I don't blog much in the summer months, for several reasons. First, I'm old. Second, I'm kind of lazy. Third, Virginia Opera shuts down for the summer, so I have little to blog about.
Cio-Cio-san: Surprisingly bad at this

Funny, but I sense that my absence has caused you minimal trauma. I sense that you're doing just fine, cooking on the grill, cavorting on the beach and all that sort of thing.

But I like to stay in touch every now and then before we crank up for the 2018-2019 season, so see if this post scratches your blog-itch. Here's your premise (it's really self-explanatory, so consider this sentence a bit of padding; some soybean meal in the ol' blog-burger):

Some of your favorite opera characters have recently discovered haiku, and boy, are they excited! I now present their initial attempts at writing in this age-old form. Not great, I grant you, but c'mon - they're beginners! Cut them some slack.

Love is like a bird?
Sure- eagles, hawks and buzzards.
My kind of birds, yo.

Today’s grooming tip:
Don’t neglect to shave the neck.
Super… super… close…
Sweeney Todd

The moon looks bloody.
It’s really freaking me out.
Let’s all go wading!

Poor old Alvaro-
Gunshot? Just an accident.
Still, he’s gotta go…
Don Carlo di Vargas (La Forza del Destino)

It’s getting stuffy…
This hotel is really cheap-o.
Oh look! My girlfriend!
Radames (Aida)

You wanted a smooch?
Looks like you got one, loser.
Hope you enjoyed it…

This stuff is great!
No, I’m serious. <hiccup>
Chick magnet? Oh yeah…
Nemorino (The Elixir of Love)

I would die for her!
Someday she’ll be mine, all mine!
Someday… some fine day…
Don Ottavio (Don Giovanni)

Fake mustache, new jacket.
I’m unrecognizable!
Dude, that was easy.
Ferrando. Also Guglielmo (Così fan tutte) 

Oh for the love of…
Stop wasting time and have sex!
Stupid idiots..
Despina  (Così fan tutte) 

Wait, I’m Japanese.
This ought to be easy for me.
…six seven eight? Damn…
Cio-Cio-san (Madama Butterfly)

April 7, 2018

The dangerous accessibility of Lucia di Lammermoor

Donizetti: social critic?
 I teach non-credit opera appreciation classes for a number of colleges and universities. They fall under the umbrella of "lifelong learning", with the student demographic being age 50 and above. The classes explore the productions of Virginia Opera. This past session, my lectures dealt with the two shows I've been blogging about: Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.

While the musical sophistication and knowledge of the students varies from neophyte to aficionado, it is fair to say that, by and large, musical taste definitely skews in a conservative direction. These people strongly prefer the standard repertoire.

And they're big - very big - on melody. VERY big.

I've had folks come up to me after a lecture and confide, "You know, Glenn, your classes are very interesting when you go into all the history and psychology and motifs and stuff, but the truth is that when I go to the opera, I don't read the plot synopsis or look at the super-titles; I just sit back with my eyes closed and I just soak up all those beautiful tunes."

NOTE: if you ever meet me in person, please give me a break and don't tell me that. Thank you for your cooperation on that. <huge eye-roll>

But I get it: people enjoy music that isn't too abstract, that's tonal, that's predictable in a pleasing way, that doesn't require too much cerebral involvement. People want "ear candy".

So when I play excerpts from Lucia, I see them physically relax, an involuntary smile break out on most of the faces: There - THAT'S what opera is supposed to sound like.

And it's true: Donizetti's adaptation of Sir Walter Scott is to music what a farmer's market is to produce. One ripe, juicy singable tune after another. Easy to listen to, easy to process.

And that's dangerous. 

The danger lies in that music lovers ARE tempted to "sit back with eyes closed" and treat the opera as a concert. The music can be appreciated for its surface attractiveness alone. One can be ignorant of the theatrical element and erroneously believe they're not being short-changed.

Confession: when I was a nerdy teenager, I listened to my mom's recording of Lucia over and over on the family hi-fi. It was the version with Roberta Peters and Jan Peerce. I had only a sketchy idea of what was being said; a vague grasp of the story. And I loved every note.

Here's a big point: it's NOT just that blissfully ignorant listeners don't know what is being said or how the plot is unfolding: it's that, in many cases, vocal melodies are deliberately and insidiously ironic. Once one becomes aware of this phenomenon, it provides a level of enjoyment that lasts long after the melodies begin to pall.

I have a great example.

Immediately following the Enrico/Lucia duet in Act 2, scene i, the family minister Raimondo enters to counsel Lucia. After some dialogue, he has an aria: "Al ben de tuoi qual vittima". As this aria (indeed, this portion of Act 2) is often cut, I'll wager that many of you Dear Readers are not familiar with it.

So give it a listen in this recording by Nicolai Ghiaurov. As you listen, speculate on what Raimondo may be saying. The tune is undeniably merry and toe-tapping. As we hear it three times within the first few seconds, it practically becomes an instant ear-worm. You can be forgiven if you assume that the character is lifting Lucia's spirits with an optimistic message of cheer and hope.

But here's the truth: Donizetti is making caustic and critical commentary on religion, specifically the Christian church.

Surprised? Skeptical? Here's the translation:
For the good of your family Lucia,
offer yourself as a victim;
and so great a sacrifice will be written in heaven.
Though men's mercy may be denied you,
There is a God, who will wipe your tears.

Raimondo is using religion to urge a person without power to accept and endure an unhappy life on earth. This is what how the Church has kept the poor and powerless in check at various points in its history, whether serfs in the feudal system or African-American slaves in America. "Yes, your life on earth will be awful, but suck it up and stick it out because after you die, things will be great in heaven."

Now think back to the jolly, bouncy theme of that aria. In the context of Raimondo's attitude, doesn't it sound a bit smug? Doesn't it now strike us as obtusely emblematic of White Male Privilege? Only now can we fully understand the hopelessness of Lucia's situation and the futility of her resistance.

And isn't it THAT what makes it GREAT?

Yes it is. Donizetti, at his best, is not just a purveyor of "tunes"; he is a musical dramatist with an acute insight into human nature. He never proved it better than in Raimondo's solo.

And don't you feel sorry for all those well-intended people who sit back and close their eyes, content to tap their toes to a melody which otherwise lingers in the mind about as long as the flavor of a stick of gum?

And now allow me to throw some post-mortem shade at the late Austin Caswell, a musicologist on the faculty of the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. Prof. Caswell was my music history professor in my freshman year at IU in 1970. Like many music history profs, he was the type who would have gladly spent months on pre-Baroque music and maybe a week on the standard concert repertoire.

He saved his greatest scorn for opera, particularly Italian opera. When the class came to that "unit", he could not have been more dismissive. I'll never forget his description, quoted here verbatim: "Opera? It's just tunes - nothing but tunes. That's it." (He pronounced it "toons".)

He was an award-winning scholar, but he was dead wrong about opera. He would have profited from taking one of my life-long learning classes. Or maybe he'd have dismissed those as well....

Look, I'm not forbidding you to enjoy the "ear candy" that composers clearly serve up on a platter in our favorite operas; most of them wanted to create a box-office hit in addition to creating Art. But don't limit your appreciation to that element alone. An opera is not a Beach Boys concert - it's theater, with all the insight on the human condition that word implies.

April 1, 2018

Alicia, Scottish ballads and Lucia di Lammermoor

I think I know what happened to Alicia after Lucia died, Edgardo killed himself and Enrico (presumably) was beheaded.

I sense that many of you are asking "Alicia? Who's that?". That's because she's the kind of opera character it's easy to forget.

In Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, she is the companion-cum-chaperone of the title character. It's not much of a part, to be honest. One of the tropes of Italian opera is the woman who listens to the prima donna soprano sing about her hopes and dreams and (usually) the man she loves. It's that woman's job to react with amazement, caution, or horror. Typical lines following the end of the aria:

"Your rash words fill me with fear!"

"Ah, no! You must forget him!"  Or, in Alicia's case,

"Oh God, I hear clear and grave omens in your story!"

Bunch of wet blankets, these soprano-companions. No fun at all.

Alicia has one other moment; since it takes six to make a sextet, she dutifully appears in the wedding scene so she can dutifully phonate during the celebrated  concerted ensemble "Chi me frena in tal momento". Her contribution in the Sextet is pretty much the musical soybean meal in a musical hamburger, but never mind. 

Lizzie Borden: Lucia's soul-sister?
I've been thinking about Alicia and how her life might have proceeded after the action of the opera came to a close:

I think she became a balladeer. I think she concocted her own version of Lucia's Act 1 aria "Regnava nel silencio" and sang it all over Scotland. Because, you see, "Regnava" is an Italian-opera version of a distinguished Scottish literary genre: the ballad.

Look at the text of the aria: in authentic ballad tradition, it tells a story. One night, a night marked by "an eerie ray of pallid moonlight", Lucia heard a low moaning sound on the breeze as she sat near a fountain on the Ashton estate. A ghost appeared; the spectre of a woman whose life, clearly, met a violent end. The ghost beckons to Lucia with a raised hand, then vanishes. At that, the water of the fountain turns red as blood.

Take a look at some real Scottish ballads and we can see that this narrative fits neatly into the style. According to the website http://www.poetryofscotland.co.uk/Ballads/features.php, Scottish ballads are characteristically dramatic, with a taste for "stark violence.... murder and scandal". Further, "Many ballads also feature elements of ... the supernatural..."

Check, check and check. In addition, be it noted that the aria has a fittingly dark and brooding quality, just right for such a story. It actually puts me in mind of a famous piano work of Brahms known as the "Edward Ballade", Op. 10 No. 1. (Hear Emil Gilels play it at this link.) It's an homage to one of the great "murder ballads" of Scotland in which a grisly crime is revealed bit by bit. The opening stanza in modern English goes like this:

'Why does your sword so drip with blood,
Edward, Edward?
Why does your sword so drip with blood?
And why so sad are ye, O?'
'O, I have killed my hawk so good,
Mother, mother:
O I have killed my hawk so good:
And I had no more but he, O.'

Let's give our hypothetical ballad the title of "The ghost of the fountain". That compares favorably to such authentic titles as "The daemon lover" and "The drowned lovers" in Romantic morbidity. 

True, the verses of "Regnava" don't conform to the standard rhyme scheme or meter of Scottish ballads, but that's where Alicia comes in. In her post-opera life she'll make Lucia's story her own, with all technical details tweaked and polished. Furthermore, she'll extend the narrative by including Lucia's sad fate: the brutal murder of Arturo Broadbent, her insanity and death, and the violent deaths of her brother and her lover.

THAT WILL BE A COOL BALLAD! It will be a ballad to be passed down from generation to generation, turning the gruesome details of the Ashton-Ravenswood feud into the stuff of legend. With "Edward" in mind as a model, it might begin something like this:

"Who are you, O Ghost of the fountain?
And whom do you seek?
Who are you, O Ghost of the fountain,
And why have you come?"
"I appear with warning dire,
Lucy, fair Lucy,
I appear with warning dire,
Red, red blood  shall you taste, O"

Okay, not perfect. Give me a break - I was a music major.

You know, we have such a "murder ballad" in American culture... It also involves a gruesome deed that has attained legendary status in our country. It goes like this:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
And when she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.

Okay, maybe a little lacking in the Romance department, but it gets the job done!

March 25, 2018

How I would've ended "Lucia di Lammermoor"

Don't get me wrong - Lucia di Lammermoor is a legit masterpiece. Donizetti didn't always attain this level of inspiration; some of the sixty-something operas he created are to opera what baloney is to meat. Cheesy libretti and generic tunes, some of them.
Actual ruins of the Wolf's Crag in Scotland
(photo by Bubobubo2)

But it's clear that Sir Walter Scott's novel The Bride of Lammermoor captured his imagination; all his creative energy was engaged in adapting it for the stage.

As much as I admire the work, I've always found one aspect of it to be clunky and unsatisfying. It has to do with formal design. Here's the problem:

Lucia is the title role. Once she's made her initial appearance, she is seldom off-stage. Her role culminates in one of the most daunting challenges for any soprano from the vocal, musical and theatrical points of view: the Mad Scene.

It is a tour de force. A successful performance will encompass all the vocal colors in the artist's palette; it will employ movement and facial expression to trace the character's declining mental; it will overcome exhaustion and vocal fatigue to summon up the wherewithal for the final phrases and the obligatory high E flat. The scene calls for an incredibly large array of affects, including:
  • Lucia's obvious retreat to a "safe place" as, zombie-like, she has gone back in time to the rendezvous with Edgardo in Act 1;
  • Her sudden shrieks of terror at the apparition of il fantasma, the ghostly phantom she sang of in her first aria;
  • Her other-worldly fantasy of a happy wedding day with Edgardo;
  • The spectacle of the first climax: a cadenza reflecting the unhinged wandering of the remnants of her mind; and
  • The bitter irony of her ecstatic final moments, apparently believing that she is in heaven, looking down on her lover like some guardian angel

A routine performance will earn an ovation; a superior performance will always - ALWAYS - bring down the house with a prolonged roar. The tableau in the moment before the curtain drops is striking: Lucia, blood-spattered, has collapsed. Enrico, devastated by the full realization of what he has done, stares in dismay; the wedding guests and Raimondo transfixed, unable to look and yet unable to look away at the demented bride.

And.... CURTAIN.

See, that should be it. That should be the end, so that the epic ovation will bring the evening to a close. I mean, how can you follow the Mad Scene with anything?

But we must soldier on - we have a tenor waiting in the wings because he has not yet an aria. Edgardo had a duet in Act 1, the sextet in Act 2, and a short scene with Enrico that is often cut.

So - raise that curtain! We're not done! Edgardo's story must resolved. We must see him learn the truth of the forced marriage. And (perhaps most importantly) he must have two arias. Geez, even Raimondo got a couple of arias. what tenor in his right mind would accept a role with no arias??

So the problem: the Mad Scene is climactic; thus, Edgardo's scene is automatically, by definition, "anti-climactic". Add to this unfortunate reality that in his final solo "Tu che a Dio spiegasti l'ali", he becomes one of those often-mocked characters who kills him/herself yet, oddly, is able to sing at length while expiring.

But what choice did Donizetti have? Plot-lines must be tidied up, tenors must be indulged. There just wasn't a way to end the opera with the grotesque glory of the Mad Scene, right?


Here's how I, Your Humble Blogger, would have re-written and re-structured Lucia to enable a less unsatisfactory finale.

We must abandon the entire final scene. It's gone! Don't worry, we're going to replace it with no injustice to the primo tenore. Let's examine the scene that follows the sextet; the one I mentioned as often being cut. In it, Edgar has fled the Aston's castle, having cursed Lucia and her supposed treachery. He is sulking in the ruins of the Ravenswood castle known as the "Wolf's Crag"

A storm rages outside; Edgar notes that it fits his current mood perfectly. Enrico barges in; his mission is simple: to put a violent end to this feud between the Ravenswood and Ashton clans. He and Edgardo agree to meet at dawn amongst the Ravenswood tombs for "the mother of all duels". In a duet of searing intensity, each anticipates victory over the other.

I see potential here! If I'm Donizetti, these are the choices I make:
  • As the curtain rises on the Wolf's Crag scene, give Edgardo the first of his two arias. Give him a cavatina expressing his heartbreak at the sight of Lucia being wed to another man. Slather on the brooding despair; spare no outpouring of lyrical grief. 
  • Let this be followed by a spirited cabaletta in which grief turns to rage. Now Edgardo can make poetic connections between the howling rain and wind outside and his anger at the rotten hand he's been dealt. Let the aria end with him vowing to avenge his honor. At that moment, Enrico can burst in, sword drawn.
  • Now we can have our intense tenor/baritone duet, all about their mutual loathing. But instead of pledging to fight it out the next morning, swords can be drawn and the duel can happen right now!
  • Bonus: we're getting a duel! As it stands in the opera Donizetti gave us, they're all talk and no action when it comes to a sword-fight.
  • Enrico gives Edgardo a fatal blow as lighting bolts flash in the sky. Exit Enrico, feeling a victory soon to turn hollow.
  • Enrico's entrance during the Mad Scene occurs halfway through, following the first climax at the end of Lucia's fantasy of marrying Edgardo. In the actual opera, Enrico is quickly apprised of the catastrophe that happened in his absence. In my version, Enrico, not yet aware of Lucia's presence, will report to Raimondo and the wedding guests that Edgardo will no longer pose a problem to Lucia and Arturo, the "happy couple". Then he can take in his sister's condition.
  • From there, the scene continues as presently performed: Lucia sings her final solo, the one about looking down on Edgardo from heaven. She collapses. The audience goes nuts.
AND WE ALL GO HOME. The demise of the title character brings the work to a close. There is no anti-climactic denouement.

Think about it. What would Aida belike if, following the tomb scene, we had a final scene in which Amneris had to sing about how she regretted everything? What would Il Trovatore be like if, following what is now the final scene, we had an extra scene in which the Count Di Luna decided to become a hermit in a monastery? 

No good! No good! You end with your strongest scene.

Kind of a shame Donizetti's dead, isn't it? Because I'm pretty sure he'd like my idea.... 

March 17, 2018

Edgardo Ravenswood as Romantic Hero

Gilbert Duprez, the first Edgardo
Although (as noted in a recent post) Donizetti broke free from rigid conventions of the bel canto operatic style in Lucia di Lammermoor, other aspects of his masterpiece honor some of those conventions. One of these is the way in which it is the voice, with little or no help from the orchestra, reveals and defines character traits.

Take Enrico Ashton, for instance. In Act 1, scene i he provides some important exposition in a couple of arias in which we learn of his loathing for Edgardo Ravenswood. He learns that Edgardo is courting his sister Lucia, the thought of which fills him with "cruel, deadly frenzy" (Cruda, funesta smania). (There is something in Enrico that kind of reminds me of Elmer Fudd when he turns red in the face and says "OOOOO, THAT WABBIT!!!")

Listen to Sherrill Milnes sing the aria in this recording and you'll realize that the vocal line alone - the very sound of the baritone voice - gives you a detailed portrait of Enrico. The opening lines cruise along in long, smoothly flowing, unbroken legato phrases. The key is in a major mode. The orchestra is discreetly subservient, mostly playing quiet repeated chords. What do we infer from all this? I hear a man with so much ego and confidence that it crosses the line into smug cockiness; into arrogance. He's accustomed to getting his way.

And, by the way, there is so much testosterone in him that it's leaking out of his ears and making puddles on the floor!

Now compare that utterance with our first impression of Edgardo, in Act 1 scene ii when he has a rendevouz with Lucia. While he doesn't have an aria, his solo "Sulla tomba" gives us his character in a few well-crafted phrases. The scene begins with a lot of dialogue, so skip to the 2:50 mark in this recording.

The contrast is striking. Gone is the long, arching, self-satisfied phrasing of Enrico; Edgardo's lines"Sulla tomba che rinserra il tradito" are divided into three separate short, choppy phrases. The key is a darkly brooding minor mode. So who is Edgardo? What is he like?

He is that creation of the Romantic period of literature: the Romantic Hero. Here is, in my imagined monologue, the credo of all Romantic Heros, from Goethe's Dr. Faustus to Heathcliff, Mr. Darcy, Rhett Butler and countless others who still populate novels, movies and TV.

I am in torment; the world can never understand how I suffer. The futility of life crushes me like a deadly weight. Others seem oblivious to the tragedy of our existence; they live their lives working at their daily toil for a crumb of food as they raise their children who will inherit their drab meaninglessness and foolish ways. I reject them; I reject a conventional life. Life has treated me badly; I only long for some blessed peace, but perhaps it will only be the grave whence peace shall be granted me.... In the meantime, only my happy memories of a more innocent time help me to go on... an innocent time that is no more...

Something like that. Edgardo, as we meet him, already has the melancholy, brooding instinct we hear as he mentions walking among "the tomb where my betrayed father lies". By the end of the opera, when he still believes Lucia willingly married another man, he has decided there is no reason to continue living, bitterly hoping Lucia will "at least respect the ashes of he who dies for you". 

It's all there - the misanthropic view of mankind (I think of Linus in Peanuts, who once said "I love mankind; it's people I can't stand"); the introspection, the feelings of alienation and isolation.

And Donizetti does not leave it to the libretto to impart this characterization; the vocal writing reveals it as well, because this is not a play; it's an opera. And that's how operatic music is supposed to function.

Enrico and Edgardo: the Yin and Yang of Lucia's world. Let their singing show you the different  psyches they manifest. 

March 5, 2018

How Donizetti wrote the Violetta-Germont scene before Verdi did

Quick: what's a "duet"?

"A song for two people", you say? Yeah, sometimes; think of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton singing "Islands in the Stream".
Gaetano Donizetti

Sometimes it's even that simple in opera! In Mozart's Marriage of Figaro there are a number of duets that basically fit the description of a short number for two vocalists: the Susanna/Marcellina duet; the Almaviva/Susanna duet; and the famous "Letter duet" for Susanna (again!) and the Countess.

But sometimes an operatic duet aspires for something more complex; more profound; of greater substance than a "song". Giuseppe Verdi, for example, achieved something remarkable in Act 2 of La Traviata. He created a confrontation between Violetta and the elder Germont that is the catalyst for everything that happens afterward. It sends both characters on a roller-coaster of evolving emotions and attitudes that begin with mutual hostility and end with mutual empathy. It's a scene of astounding insight into human nature and psychology, rendered with devastating musical aptness.

The thing that makes such substance and complexity possible in a "duet" is its architectural design. Verdi borrowed from instrumental forms to turn this "duet" into a multi-movement work similar to a sonata or concerto.

What genius! What innovation! What craftsmanship!

One little detail - Gaetano Donizetti did it first, almost two decades earlier.

Theory: before writing Traviata, Verdi made close and careful study of Act 2, scene i of Lucia di Lammermoor, in which a similar multi-movement design unfolds in the confrontation between Lucia and her brother Enrico.

In this scene, which runs to some thirteen minutes or more, Enrico puts the screws to his sister, heartlessly manipulating her into marrying Arturo Bucklaw. Initially defiant, Lucia's resolve dissipates when shown a forged letter (supposedly from her lover Edgardo) ending their affair. Enrico, feigning empathy (he's no Germont!) for her situation, explains that his own life is in danger should the marriage not take place. In the end, he turns threatening, warning her not to betray him as the sounds of Arturo's arrival are heard. Her spirit broken, Lucia is utterly defeated.

That's a bit much to cram into a "song"; hence, the need for a multi-movement work. What follows below is a breakdown of each of Donizetti's movements, detailing the sub-structure of each. The entire "sonata" follows the traditional layout of fast-slow-fast contrast. You might find it useful to follow along as you listen to a recording. 

Though marked "Moderato" in tempo, the music is quick-moving, with plenty of rapid sixteenth-notes to provide a lively character in keeping with a first movement. The sub-structure consists of two contrasting themes. The first ("A"), has a sharply rhythmic character. It's followed by a more lyrical theme in the same key ("B").

 Lucia states the themes first, berating her brother for his cruelty to her. Enrico sings the same two themes, though in a lower key. That his musical material is the same as hers gives this movement its confrontational character; the themes are "butting heads", so to speak; Lucia is the immovable object while Enrico is the irresistible force.

This movement ends with a virtuoso flourish , but DON'T CLAP! We're just getting started. A transitional passage of dialogue advances the plot with the revelation of the forged letter. Lucy reads it and instantly gives in to despair, prompting the second movement, an expressive slow section.

Marked "Larghetto", Lucia's lament begins in a new key: B flat major. This time, as will be explained, the two characters sing different themes. Lucia's is elegiac and bittersweet:
Donizetti had to assign a different theme for Enrico's section of this movement, because his affect is different from his sister's: he is not in mourning, after all. Instead, he "mansplains" to her how close she came to betraying the Ashton clan. Feeling he has won, he can't resist a more dance-like theme with the character of a waltz:
The movement ends with an elaborate cadenza for the two voices, following the custom of the bel canto style. 

Dialogue in the final transitional passage provides two advances in plot. First, Arturo is arriving, meaning that Lucia is running out of options; second, Enrico reveals the perilous state of his own political connections. His life is in danger. (As with many opera "villains", Enrico doubtless does not see himself as evil. He likely feels that he has a right to protect his own neck, and in the patriarchal culture of those times, he's unlikely to understand why Edgardo is so preferable to Arturo. After all, the point of a husband is to provide wealth and station for his wife, right? And many marriages were arranged in those days. The trouble with Evil is that too often it lacks self-awareness.)

The duet ends with a legitimately fast tempo, marked "Vivace", as would be expected for the finale of a sonata or concerto. The key reverts to the original G major, providing tonal symmetry. This time, it is Enrico who states the theme, a robust tune whose energy expresses his impatience with Lucia as he warns her to go along with his plans:
As Lucia's response is in sharp contrast, consisting of a prayer to God for mercy, Donizetti might have given her a new and contrasting theme. But the desire for formal symmetry made it more important to have her repeat Enrico's theme, duplicating the design of the first movement in reverse (Enrico-Lucia, as opposed to Lucia-Enrico). In performance, her version of the theme often is slightly more moderate in tempo.

The entire structure ends in a blaze of vocal fireworks, sure to spur the applause of the audience. Even listeners who know nothing about sonata form intuitively understand that the entire work has ended. 

You could make the case that Verdi's grand duet for Violetta and Germont displays definite advances on Donizetti's effort in subtlety and sophistication. But let's agree that without the example of Lucia, Traviata might not have been possible. 

March 4, 2018

How three instruments in "Lucia" broke the bel canto mold

Gioacchino Rossini, that bon vivant, gourmand and composer of thirty-nine operas, was once asked to reveal the secret of the craft of opera. “To create good opera, three things are needed”, he replied, “voice, voice and voice.”
The glass armonica

And there you have, in one ironic quote, the essence of that style period known as bel canto, the meaning of which encompasses far more than its literal translation of "beautiful singing". After all, what composer in his right mind would want ugly singing? (Notable exception: Verdi, who wrote that Lady Macbeth should have a "rough, hollow, stifled voice")

Many opera lovers rightly associate bel canto, as realized in the works of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, with coloratura, a manner of highly florid vocal writing calling for rapid scales, trills and other aspects of virtuosic technique.

But the basic meaning of bel canto is that the voice is everything.


In other words, the human voice accounts for drama, acting, character, psychology, affect - the whole shebang. Under this paradigm, it didn't matter if an innocent young girl was being portrayed by an obese 40-something soprano; as long as her singing conveyed the musical truth of the character, looking one's part was a secondary consideration.

Do not look for the bel canto orchestra to churn out Wagnerian motifs or to provide subtle commentary on the characters or the action. Though often sparkling and colorful, its main function is relegated to discreet accompaniment to the singers. Oom-pa-pa, and simple broken chords are typical patterns.

So here’s a paradox: Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor is a bel canto opera. The title role contains dizzying coloratura passages, and vocal lines delineate character throughout while the orchestra is content to stay in the background. And yet! Lucia contains important moments in which Donizetti went against the Rossinian ideal of “voice, voice, voice”. 

I'm especially struck by three major instrumental passages that are heard prior to three of Lucia's entrances. Each consists of an extended solo instrument accompanied by orchestra, with no vocal element. I'm NOT talking about introductions to arias in which the orchestra states the theme prior to it being sung. In two of these passages, the themes heard are never sung; they belong solely to the solo instrument. Their purpose? To express Lucia's emotional and mental state of mind in that moment of her journey. No words, no vocal line: just information about the character delivered via instruments. Here's a description of each:

I. HARP (Act 1, scene ii)
Lucy's first appearance is set in a secluded spot on the Ashton estate near an old fountain where she plans to meet Edgardo for a rendevouz. Before she or her companion can sing a word, Donizetti presents a mini-concerto for harp and orchestra. Nearly three minutes in length, it gives us a vivid portrait of the title character before she encounters any adversity or mental decline. This theme conveys all we need to know about Lucia: her delicate nature, her hyper-sensitivity and, thanks to the timbre of the harp, a fragility that foreshadows a mind too easily undone by stress.
For the moment, this bel canto masterpiece has allowed an element other than the human voice to provide important information to the listener.

II. OBOE (Act 2, scene i)
This scene unfolds as one of the great soprano-baritone duets in Italian opera, a scene Verdi clearly studied carefully in writing La Traviata. (A future post will explore the structure of the Lucia/Enrico duet.)
When Lucia first sings, she is angry with her brother; she sings with fiery passion as she accuses him of "inhuman cruelty". So it's odd that the oboe solo that is heard as she makes her silent entrance moments before has a completely different affect. The oboe solo is lacking in energy; it seems to depict depression:

The contrast between this lifeless theme and Lucia's subsequent passage demonstrates that Donizetti, when inspired, truly understood the opera composer's art. Lucia feels anger in the moment toward her brother; but she is suffering from depression. She has received no letters from Edgardo since his departure from Scotland, thanks to Enrico's interception of them. She worries that he has forgotten her or betrayed his pledge of love. The irony of her inner sadness and outer feisty spirit lends her a credible complexity of character.

III. GLASS ARMONICA (Act 3, scene i)
Donizetti saved his most striking instrumental entrance music for the famous "Mad Scene" in which our heroine interrupts wedding festivities to wander into the great hall, streaked with blood, hallucinating, babbling incoherently and, in the end, collapsing. To set the scene and depict something of her unhinged mental state, the composer turned to an instrument which was odd in 1835 when Lucia premiered, odd in 1765 when Benjamin Franklin (of all people!) invented it, odd when Mozart composed music for it, and definitely remains an odd asterisk to music history in our time: the glass armonica. You know the sound a wet finger makes when lightly rubbed on the rim of a goblet? In this instrument, waterless goblets of increasing size are attached to a spindle, making for a more efficient way of producing the unique, sweetly whining tone. It sounds, aptly for Donizetti, like the voice of your nightmares. Masters of the instrument have always been in short supply, so in most productions the flute steps in as a barely-adequate substitute.

The writing for the armonica/flute is more extensive than in the first two examples, as its lines are a kind of proxy for the absent lover, Edgardo. Lucy croons to the armonica and sings ecstatic duets with it.

Without the instrument's contribution to the Mad Scene; without it's contribution as the hallucinated lover the scene would be weakened. In other words, if it were up to the voice alone to depict insanity, Lucia di Lammermoor would be diminished in stature.

These three examples, taken together, show that Gaetano Donizetti, while honoring most traditions of bel canto, was in reality a transitional composer, paving the way for Verdi, Wagner and even Puccini in expanding the role of orchestral instruments and allowing them to impart information about human psychology to the audience.