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!

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