HGO Plays With Fire
Who is the maddest Lucia of all? Opera's hottest question gets a Houston test
Many go mad for opera, but only some go mad in opera.
This week Houston Grand Opera’s production of Gaetano Donizetti’s bel canto opera Lucia de Lammermoor opens at the Wortham Theater Center Friday and runs through Feb. 11. The combination of a stellar cast, award-winning director John Doyle, a brand new production designed by Liz Ascroft and HGO’s excellent creative team will no doubt provide much to admire.
To me the most compelling facet of this gem of a work is the famous mad scene that tests the will and skill of opera’s greatest divas.
Lucia de Lammermoor provides a stormy brew of gothic Scotland and hot-blooded Italy. The tale, as immortalized by Walter Scott’s 1819 novel The Bride of Lammermoor languorously explores the personal and political rivalry between two families. The hatred between these houses has built for generations, yet that doesn’t stop the delicate Lucy Ashton from falling in with the stormy Edgar Ravenswood. Meddling family members, rival lovers and arranged marriages swiftly spell disaster for this star-crossed duo.
Salvadore Cammarano’s libretto for Lucia de Lammermoor brings action to fore, cutting nearly to end of Scott’s novel to foreground the disastrous enforced marriage and wedding scene. The libretto thus trades political intrigue and Romantic literary conventions (such as prophetic old women in ruined cottages) for a Romeo and Juliet-like orgasm of resentment, revenge, regret and death.
There are many ways to prepare for the opening of Lucia de Lammermoor. You might learn a little bit about Walter Scott or about 19th century Scotland. You might want to study up bel canto, a vocal style characterized by soaring arias that remarkably marry agility, clarity and fluidity. Bel canto is closely identified with composers Donizetti, Gioachino Rossini and Vincenzo Bellini.
It’s curious to think that bel canto and madness would come to be so curiously intertwined in the history of opera. If we think of madness as an exquisite and deranging balance of frenzy and control, perhaps we come close to the potency of the operatic voice reaching heights of virtuosity.
Ballet lovers will be familiar with the challenge and the appeal of a well-executed mad scene. In Giselle a peasant girl falls in love with a prince who disguises himself and toys with her affections. When he’s revealed to be so far out of her league, she goes mad and dances herself to death in frustration. You can see this for yourself next season in a brand new production at the Houston Ballet.
Or, watch Natalia Makarova go mad as Giselle to Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Albrecht in a 1977 production of Giselle for American Ballet Theater in New York.
As I prepare for HGO’s Lucia de Lammermoor, I find myself seeking out exemplary instances Lucia’s madness. I’ve read that in 1859, 16-year-old Adelina Patti launched a triumphant career with this role, surviving and excelling in spite of the memorable if accidental firing of pistol in the middle of the premiere. She didn’t let that stop her bravura performance.
In a later performance in Bucharest, Patti manage to catch her dress on fire just as the mad scene began. Again the consummate professional, she ripped off the inflamed fabric and went on with the show.
Opera lovers are probably some of the most diligent users of YouTube. So I allowed these experts to guide me in a highly informative if somewhat inexact study of some of the most remarkable Lucias.
With 542,298 individual views, the top choice seemed to be a concert performance by Sumi Jo. I found much more compelling a staged version with blood streaked across the gown of this gorgeous singer. There was a wonderful girlish quality as Jo’s mad and murderous Lucia dons her bridal veil as if dressing up to play.
It seems the classic Lucia belongs to Joan Sutherland. There were so many versions of her Lucia that I suspect she must be the undisputed queen of Scotland. So distinct from Sumi Jo’s portrayal, there was a wide-eyed reverence in the 62-year-old Sutherland. It is as if derangement reveals such newness in the world that Sutherland can barely contain her excitement. If you pick up a copy of HGO's Opera Cues, make sure to read Anthony Freud's wonderful recollection of the great Sutherland.
There are so many wonderful Lucias to see and so little time. I will admit my own private favorite might be Anna Moffo’s 1971 performance, also available on DVD. The sweetness of her voice and the historical detail might distract from Moffo’s Valley of the Dolls sensibility. At least, so it seemed to me. If you want madness with a touch of hazy distraction, erotic allure and sexual mania, this is a Lucia for you.
This production of Lucia de Lammermoor features one of HGO’s studio alumni, the celebrated Albina Shagimuratova, as Lucia who, in this clip, unleashes the Queen of the Night’s coloratura aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
Let’s hope that Shagimuratova, unlike Adelina Patti, settles for setting the audience on fire.