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. 

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