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.


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