Illustration by Leonard Dente

Tomorrow night,  “Lucia di Lammermoor” premieres at Vancouver Opera. Donizetti’s masterpiece is one of the most frequently performed belcanto operas which immediately brings to mind wonderful tunes like the “mad scene” with its beautiful dialogue between soprano and flute. And this production has everything a conductor can wish for: “wonderful music combined with a great cast.”

Read music director Jonathan Darlington’s programme notes …

” ‘Magical music never leaves the memory’ (grateful thanks to Sir Thomas Beecham). That could easily be the subtitle to Lucia di Lammermoor.

The opera was written in a mere six weeks – even less time than it took Mozart to write “Le Nozze di Figaro” or Bach his “Musical Offering”! Bellini had died in desperate solitude the same month (September) as the premiere of “Lucia” and Rossini had retired – to cook! Donizetti was therefore the king of opera in Italy and “Lucia“, after an incredibly successful premiere – not always the case – quickly became one of the most universally popular of 19th century operas. The ‘mad scene’ was sung by every self -respecting prima donna and many composers made transcriptions for all sorts of instrumental combinations: Franz Liszt’s piano transcription perhaps being the most famous. Its success rather dropped off during the first half of the 20th century only to be revived after the Second World War thanks to the vocal pyrotechnics of Callas, Sutherland and the like.

For me however the piece is not just about vocal virtuosity. The pyrotechnics have an essential role to play in the tragic nature of the subject matter. Extreme emotions demand extreme means of expression. The vocal prowess hits hard in “Lucia” because it’s set within a structure – the usual arias, ensembles, recitatives etc.. – a structure that is entirely conventional and as such mirrors the conventional social trap in which Lucia and Edgardo find themselves. The pathos that Hector Berlioz, usually no great fan of Donizetti, admired in the second act finale and the death of Edgardo derive a great deal of their power from that dramatic, structural turning of the screw. It is a sine qua non for being a great operatic composer. Incidentally, it’s no coincidence that other great artists used the opera to highlight human relationships destroyed by social conventions. (I’m thinking in particular of Emma in Madame Bovary and Anna in Anna Karenina.)

On a purely personal note I have a rather, let’s say, morbid interest in Donizetti. I happen to live in the area around Paris just down the road from where he sadly died in a mental institution. Something was obviously wrong when he complained of a sensation, as it seemed to him, as if “lightning had just crossed his brain”. This happened in 1843 but the secret illness was evident as early as 1835 when he composed Lucia. Edgardo’s aria at the end of the opera, just before he kills himself, was written when “the Maestro….was attacked by a blinding pain in his head”. The whole aria was composed in extreme agony. In this context Lucia’s ‘mad scene’ takes on a whole different meaning. For me there is almost nothing more tragic than this report on Donizetti’s mental condition in 1847 shortly before his death – apart from the death of star-crossed lovers that is!

1.  Interrogated on general matters                              –  Answered nothing

2.  Questioned again                                                           –   Nothing

3.  At interrogations made by                                      –  Opening his eyes and fixing them

the nephew Andrea Donizetti and                                on one or another of the people

the brother Franceso Donizetti and                             present, he again closed them

by the medical experts, who grasped                          without having answered anything

his hands and touched his head.                                  and without giving any sign of

having understood the questions

addressed to him.

Although this, and the story of Lucia are tragic in the extreme, there is music of such exquisite beauty that makes us forget our troubles and sends us singing for joy into the night. It will do so for generations to come.”

Jonathan Darlington

For more information on the production, visit Vancouver Opera’s official blog, for tickets click here.

The Vancouver Sun has an exclusive glimpse of the production. Read more on the maestro’s work with the singers, and on soprano Eglise Gutierrez take on her role.

On Friday, December 3rd, from 3:30 pm, Jonathan Darlington will be giving an interview on afternoon radio show, Correspondences, hosted by Denis Couture, at CBC’s Open House & Food House Day in support of food banks in British Columbia.

Vancouver Opera

Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor

December 4, 7, 9, 11, 2010
All performances 7:30 pm
Queen Elizabeth Theatre
In Italian with English SURTITLES™