About the Opera

Gaetano Donizetti was 34 years old and had written more than 40 operas when Lucia di Lammermoor debuted in September 1835 at Naples’ Teatro San Carlo. It wasn’t easy getting to opening night even for Donizetti, now famous with his operas being produced all over Europe. The theater ran short of money and the diva hired to sing the title role refused to rehearse without pay. The King of Naples finally weighed in, replaced theater management, and the opera opened two months late.

It was worth the hassle. “Every number was listened to in religious silence then hailed with spontaneous cheers,” the composer wrote to his publisher after the debut.

Lucia was more than just a box office smash. It exemplified the shift from opera based on mythology and classical themes to character-driven romances. In this case, a remote Scottish castle populated by a feuding family and a beautiful but depressed young woman who sees ghosts in a garden fountain and, for good reason, goes certifiably insane on her wedding night. The popular Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott imagined this fanciful plot in “The Bride of Lammermoor” and Salvatore Cammarano, Donizetti’s brilliant librettist, adapted the story for the opera stage.

A literate public could relate. Star-crossed lovers from feuding families? Romeo and Juliet. Murder in a Scottish castle? Hello, Macbeth. The opera’s influence was wide. It’s mentioned by name in two of the greatest romantic novels, “Madame Bovary” and “Anna Karenina.” There’s also a recent movie credit. In Martin Scorcese’s Boston-based gangster movie “The Departed,” Jack Nicholson plays a mob boss, vicious but creepily clever. The ring tone on the boss’s cell phone: The sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor, Act 2.

Lucia is riveting opera from beginning to end, punctuated by the stunning sextet and later, the haunting mad scene in Act 3. Lucia has just murdered her husband and her white nightgown is spattered with blood. She stands, ghostlike, in front of the wedding guests, quietly hallucinating as a solo flute plays counterpoint. It’s one of opera’s iconic arias as well as a benchmark for sopranos, containing some of the most difficult coloratura passages ever written. Donizetti originally scored the aria for soprano and glass harmonica, an odd instrument whose version of 37 glass bowls partially filled with water and played with a musician’s wet finger, was developed by Benjamin Franklin. The composer apparently had second thoughts and substituted flute for harmonica on opening night.

Donizetti had visited the mad scene idea before. In Anna Bolena, his first successful opera, Ann Boleyn, Henry VIII’s wife No. 2, goes mad and sings to the king as she sits in the Tower of London, waiting for her beheading. In a poignant footnote, Donizetti himself spent over a year in an asylum at the end of his life.

With a plot device this powerful, you’d think the curtain would fall with Lucia’s mental breakdown and death. But Donizetti, displaying his great sense of theater, felt Lucia and her great love, Edgardo, should have in death what they were denied in life. He lets Edgardo explain this in a lovely aria that closes the show, earning Donizetti the gratitude of tenors for all time.

- Performance notes by Eugene Carlson