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Remorse and Bitter Tears - Opera Orlando's Lucia di Lammermoor

April 28, 2024

On April 21 I went to see Opera Orlando's of Gaetano Donizetti's 1835 opera Lucia di Lammermoor.  It's based on Walter Scott's 1819 novel The Bride of Lammermoor.  I had not heard of this one prior to Opera Orlando's season announcement, nor had I heard of the book.  

 

So here's some thoughts on the opera in general but also this production in specific.  (Spoiler: It was really good)  Like in my pieces on Tosca and Frida, this isn't quite going to be a review of the show, though I will do some of that, but more of an exploration of the opera, focusing mostly on the characters and the storytelling,

 

And my standard disclaimer: I am a layman, not an opera critic and apologies in advance to the stage crew for this one.  I don't know anything about that craft, so don't feel like I have anything useful to say other than: Great job, it looked awesome!

 

I'll follow this up in a future part 2, after I read the novel and see what i can glean about how Donizetti and librettist Cammarano chose to adapt it. 

 

Opera - Summary and Background

 

(Spoilers ahead.  I didn't read the plot synopsis before seeing the show and I'm glad I did.  The famous event in was pretty shocking.)

 

This is a tragedy set mostly at Lammermoor castle in 17th century Scotland, though It is sung in Italian.  It's the story of Lucia, her brother Enrico, and Enrico's enemy Edgardo.  Lucia and Edgardo have fallen in love and Enrico, wanting to make a political alliance by marrying her off to someone else, tricks her into thinking Edgardo has spurned her.  Distraught, and at Enrico's forceful insistence, she signs a marriage contract with Enrico's potential ally Arturo.   Edgardo crashes the wedding, curses everyone, then leaves.  That night Enrico goes to Edgardo's castle and challenges him to a duel the next morning.  Meanwhile, at the wedding celebration, the priest Raimondo comes running in to tell the revelers that Lucia has murdered Arturo.    Lucia enters, has a pretty epic mad scene and then collapses.  Edgardo, at his family's cemetery, sings about his intention to let Enrico kill him.  He sees a procession of mourners from Lammermoor castle and learns that Lucia is dead.  He kills himself.  The end.

  

Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) was one of what Professor Robert Greenberg called "the three indispensable composers of bel canto opera" along with Vincenzo Bellini and Gioachino Rossini.  (The Great Courses, How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, Lecture 37.)  

Bel Canto literally means "beautiful singing" as I understand it has become kind of a shorthand for early 19th Century Italian opera.  It was popular, commercialized, and sometimes cranked out extremely quickly.  Donizetti himself wrote more than 70 operas.   For point of reference, that's quite a bit more than most of the other opera giants like Rossini (39), Verdi (26), Mozart (22, generously), Wagner (13), and Puccini (12).  From my rather casual cruise around the internet, it looks like Lucia di Lammermoor is probably Donizetti's most popular work, though Opera Orlando performed his Daughter of the Regiment last season.

 

Bel Canto may have been popular but not everyone was a fan, especially French and German composers who thought it was trite, light, and safe.  Hector Berlioz said "To the Italians music is a sensual pleasure, and nothing more. For this most beautiful form of expression they have scarcely more respect than for the culinary art. In fact, they like music which they can take in at first hearing, without reflection or attention, just as they would do with a plate of macaroni."

Which...damn.

Lucia di Lammermoor's mad scene aria, "il dolce suono" ("The sweet sound"), feels like the dramatic centerpiece and showstopper.  WIth the caveat that I am not a singer, let alone and opera singer, it's very impressive and sounds like it's really technically demanding.  Also, apparently it's at least partially what the blue alien sings in the opera scene in The Fifth Element.  (I haven't seen that movie in a really long time, so I'm just going to accept that fun fact as true.)

 

The Opera Orlando Production

 

Cast:

Lucia Stark                     Marnie Breckenridge 

Edgardo Greyjoy           Ben Gulley 

Enrico Stark                    Gabriel Preisser 

Raimondo                       Zaikuan Song 

Septa Alisa                     Linda Maritza Collazo 

Arturo Arryn                   David Soto Zambrana 

Normanno                     John Teixeira

 

An Insultingly Short Review

 

This show had probably the loudest standing ovation of any Opera Orlando production I've seen.  It was well deserved.  The three principals, Marnie Breckenridge (Lucia), Ben Gulley (Edgardo), and Gabriel Preisser (Enrico) were all excellent.      

 

The applause, enthusiastic for the whole cast, became deafening when Marnie Breckenridge took her bow, which wasn't all that surprising.  Both her singing and acting in the mad scene were incredible.  The scene is also pretty long and focused entirely on her, so Breckenridge's ability to maintain its energy and intensity was impressive.

 

Ben Gulley, who has been featured in two other Opera Orlando productions and a summer concert recital, was also heartily cheered.  He's obviously a great singer and, considering how smiley and affable he is in real life, he's surprisingly good at playing sort of a self-centered jerk. (More on that later)

 

During his bow, Gabriel Preisser, the Executive Director of Opera Orlando whom probably everyone in the crowd has met at least once, got boo'd extremely loudly for playing Enrico.  It was very funny, and Preisser grinned and egged it on.

 

The ensemble was also great as was the music, provided by the Orlando Philharmonic.  Steinmetz Hall is an awesome venue for the opera and the sets, costuming, and lighting were really interesting and served the story well.

 

It was a very rewarding experience.  If you live in Orlando you probably should have gone and seen it.  So good luck with that time machine; maybe keep an eye out for next season where there will be a production of another Scottish story.   (Hint: Macbeth)

 

Note: Lucia's libretto is divided into 3 acts, but this production arranged the story into 2 by combining the libretto's Act 1 and Act 2.  So if I say "Act 2", I mean Orlando Opera's Act 2, which is the libretto's Act 3.

 

Game of Thrones

 

The most obvious production detail of note in this run was the setting.  Opera Orlando went with a Game of Thrones theme, changing some character family names and place names.  Enrico Ashton became Enrico Stark, Arturo Bucklaw became Arturo Arryn, Lammermoor Castle became Winterfell, and Wolfscrag the Iron Islands, etc.

 

The changes were mostly cosmetic (costuming, house sigils, etc) but the slight adjustments to the libretto did inject some interesting character sub/meta-text and knowing that the opera was now set in the hyper-violent Westeros crystallized the stakes a bit.  For example, In the original libretto, Enrico has the line:

 

William is dead - we shall see Mary upon the throne.

Prostrate in the dust is the party I supported.

 

In this version, the line was altered to something like:

 

The Lannisters have surrendered, a Targaryen is upon the throne.

Prostrate in the dust is the party I supported.

 

That, to an audience in 2024, has a more ominous weight to it.  I don't know who Mary and William are, or what Mary's ascension implies, but I know what happens in Westeros when you support the wrong faction in a succession dispute.  "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die."  Referencing the pop culture juggernaut changes the framing a bit, and in a way that makes it all feel more "tactile" to a modern audience.  Enrico's waning fortunes in the original libretto almost feel more like a local dispute; injecting a potential kingdom wide civil war as a backdrop escalates things.  (More on Enrico, later, too.)

 

(Also, I couldn't find the William and Mary the libretto is referring to.  There were rulers of Scotland named William and Mary, but they were after the timeframe of the play, ruled together, and Mary predeceased William.  So the monarchs Enrico is talking about might be just as made up as the Starks and the Targaryens.) 

 

The show opened with members of the Orlando Ballet dancing in costumes that were evocative of Game of Throne's White Walkers or maybe the ice zombies.  (I was a little too far away to tell precisely what their masks looked like.)  I thought this was just to give the audience something cool to look at during the instrumental overture, but they return in an interesting way in Lucia's big scene, almost as a physical manifestation of her madness.  I appreciate that their inclusion was thought out and integrated with the story.

 

Some General Thoughts

 

The Libretto

 

Similar to what I said about Tosca, I think Lucia di Lammermoor has a compelling libretto, with some striking lines that are evocative even without the music:

 

LUCIA

On the breeze will come to you my ardent sighs,

you will hear in the murmuring sea the echo of my laments.

 

Sure, it's a little melodramatic but it's, you know, opera.

 

Actually there were about three instances where I felt like the libretto and the music were actually kind of in conflict with each other, and I don't really know what to make of it.  All three times were with Enrico.  For example, early on he sings this:

 

In vain your pity leads you to plead for her.

Speak to me of revenge and I will hear you.

Wretched pair! The storm of my terrible fury is upon you,

The evil flame that consumes you, I shall quench with blood!

 

This is really intense and threatening.  I really like it, but the music itself in that spot was almost like a light delicate waltz.  It felt kind of incongruous; like maybe we weren't supposed to take him all that seriously, like he was all bluster?  But that possibility is not borne out with the events or tone of the rest of the opera.  And I didn't notice it with any other character.  It wasn't distracting or anything, but it definitely made his pretty cool lines not hit as hard.  I don't know if that was a deliberate choice by Donizetti and Cammarano or an oversight.

 

Lucia, herself

 

The way Lucia herself is written into the story is very interesting to me.  She's incredibly passive, kind of just a pawn, or a lamp that Enrico and Edgardo fight over.  The one real action she takes, killing Arturo, happens offstage and then she breaks down in the face of events she had very little agency in.  

 

The whole opera is shot through with people making decisions for her, not listening to her, and generally making her interior life secondary to their own.  The most obvious perpetrator of this is her brother Enrico, but Edgardo does it. too.  In their Act 1 duet, after saying he's going to ask Enrico for her hand, he immediately flies into a rage when she gently demurs and, in a scene ostensibly about their love, begins ranting about Enrico and his own misfortune.  He rolls right over her when she tries to calm him and then says this:

 

Hear me and tremble!

Over the tomb where my betrayed father lies,

in my rage, I swore to wage eternal war on your kin.

But I saw you and another emotion stirred in my heart, and anger fled.

But that vow is not broken, I could well fulfil it yet!

 

She feels like she's surprisingly not considered in all of this.  It doesn't even occur to him that she's in a bad and potentially dangerous position herself.  He does calm down and they exchange vows and rings, but this will not be the last time he doesn't give her a whole lot of consideration.

 

Another subtle thing that I think is kind of emblematic of her lack of agency, is the beginning of the Act II sextet "Chi mi frena in tal momento" that happens after Lucia signs the wedding contract with Arturo and Edgardo bursts into Winterfall.  The sextet kicks off with Edgardo and Enrico singing together about how distraught Lucia looks and primarily how it makes them feel:

 

EDGARDO

Who curbs me at such a moment, who stemmed the flood of my anger?

Her grief, her terror, are the proof, are the proof of her remorse!

But like a withered rose, she hovers between death and life!

I surrender, I am touched, I love you, heartless girl, I love you still!

 

ENRICO

Who checks my fury and the hand which darted to my sword?

I heard within me a plea for the unhappy girl!

She is my kin! I have betrayed her! She hovers between death and life!

Ah, I cannot quell the remorse in my soul!

 

I think it's kind of telling that they're not even addressing her directly, and she doesn't get a voice in this until they've said how they're feeling.  And also, she begins singing paired with Raimondo, a relatively minor character compared to the other three. 

 

Starting the sextet off with Edgardo and Enrico rather than having it be a trio with the woman they are singing about is interesting, and reinforces how she's kind of an object to be used or pitied, but not someone who gets a voice.  Almost like it doesn't occur to them to let her join and actually maybe listen to her.  She's one of the principals, and the titular character, yet her voice is secondary to theirs.  Also, come to think of it, in the one scene where she absolutely dominates, the mad scene, Enrico and Edgardo are not even present.  They never do end up hearing her.

 

Is Lucia being underwritten and constantly sublimated part of the point?  Is it subversive commentary on how little voice women get or is just how women were written in the 1830s and something the original audience wouldn't notice, because "Yeah, they're never real characters?"  I genuinely don't know.

 

Going back to Arturo, just from a framing perspective, it was probably wise to have Lucia kill him offstage.  Seeing the act would have made it harder to sympathize with her considering she brutally murders a man who, at least in the staging I saw, just seems like some guy.  Since we don't see it, the emotional sledgehammer of the scene is the state that she is in, not the murder itself.

 

Oh, and also, note to Edgardo and Lucia: if you suspect you're in an opera, don't tempt fate by singing stuff like this:

 

Ah, only icy death can quench our passion.

 

Enrico - Damned Baritones

 

George Bernard Shaw said "Opera is when a tenor and soprano want to make love, but are prevented from doing so by a baritone."  Which, yes.  (Though sometimes they are prevented by a bass.)  Lucia does quite literally fit that description, but I like that the obstructing party is Lucia's brother and not some jealous third wheel.

 

Certainly there's room for interpretation in the libretto, but I thought in this production there was some ambiguity in Enrico.  He's not preventing Lucia from Edgardo just because he's a jerk.  I won't go so far as to say he's right, but his motives are understandable and at least vaguely justified.  

 

I could see where his desire for the political marriage could be played as more mercenary, as statements like "the star of my fortunes has waned" and Lucia can "restore me and my tottering power" are a little vague.  But, to me, given the cutthroat Game of Thrones setting, his desperation to make an alliance with House Arryn was more defensible.  Especially given that Lucia's suitor is Enrico's mortal enemy, who very shortly afterwards tells her  "I swore to wage eternal war on your kin."

 

I think it's understandable that Enrico would believe that Edgardo was in fact using her for a fling or to actively prevent a political marriage that would strengthen House Stark.  This, of course, has the same pervasive self-centered assurance that things are only important insofar as they affect him that we'll see over and over, and maybe if he had actually talked to Lucia he might have seen things differently.  

 

It makes sense too, given the setting and the character as established, that he would legitimately not understand why a political marriage is such a bad thing.

 

He was also played as genuinely not thrilled at how what he was doing was affecting Lucia.  When he handed her the forged letter saying Edgardo had abandoned her and she fell to her knees, Preisser looked genuinely upset.  I also think it is good writing that his next line to her is not him putting on an act:

 

A mad, evil love consumed you, you betrayed your kin for a vile seducer..

 

He may have forged the letter, but he genuinely believes what he's saying and it's consistent with what we've seen and will see from him.  To him, Edgardo is just a vile seducer who led his sister astray; if he has to forge a letter to "save" her, then so be it.  ("Betrayed your kin" is a little strident, of course.  Enrico is obviously not immune to histrionics.)

 

Don't get me wrong, he's very much a manipulative dick.  As justified as his fear at what's going to happen to him and his family may be in the fallout of the Targaryens taking the throne, saying this to Lucia is extremely crappy:

 

If you betray me, my fate is sealed for ever. 

You rob me of honour and life and deliver me to the executioner's axe. 

In your dreams you will see me, an angry, menacing specter!

That bloody axe will always be before your eyes.

 

But he does also say this after the wedding contract is signed:

She is my kin! I have betrayed her! ...

Ah, I cannot quell the remorse in my soul!

 

Surprisingly, Enrico survives the opera.  But he gets no catharsis after Lucia dies, no big aria, nothing. His last line in the show, after Lucia's mad scene is "Remorse will bring me days of bitter weeping."  He will have to live with this forever.

 

Edgardo - Read the Room, Please

 

i was surprised at how little Edgardo feels like he's in this.  He has the duet with Lucia near the beginning, then disappears for almost an hour, arriving just before the end of Act 1.   He's more present in Act 2, being there for 3 scenes, including the final one, but he's not there for the most pivotal scene of the show, the mad scene.  Similar to Enrico, he comes off as a self-centered prick sometimes.  In his Act 2 scene where he resolves to let Enrico kill him, he says this of Lucia, imagining her with her husband:

 

The whole universe is a desert for me without Lucia!

Yet the castle gleams with torches...Ah, the night

was too short for the revels! Heartless jade!

While I pine away in hopeless tears, you laugh and gloat

by your happy consort's side! You amid joys, I near to death!

Soon this neglected tomb will give me refuge.

...

You too, forget that despised marble tombstone!

Never visit it, o cruel one, by your husband's side.

 

Like, my dude, you know she was deceived, and this isn't worse for you than it is for her.  It's like Edgardo can’t even consider that she didn’t have much of a choice.  And the audience has just witnessed Lucia's complete mental breakdown and, in this production, her death so his whinging about how cruel she's being to him doesn't make him look very good.  Admittedly, he doesn't know that happened, but still, have a little bit of empathy, man.

 

Overall, the show handles Edgardo with the same ambivalence that it gives Enrico but in the opposite direction.  Enrico has more defensible motivations and more remorse and than I would have expected in an opera antagonist, and Edgardo is more selfish than I would expect from a romantic hero. 

 

The Mad Scene

   

I should probably stop beating around the bush and talk about the centerpiece: Lucia's mad scene.  I'd say this scene was worth the price of admission all on its own.  The singing, the acting from the entire cast, the staging, it was all amazing.  I was really surprised when Raimondo entered and frantically told everyone that Lucia murdered Arturo, and a stunned shock rolled through the cast.  And when she entered covered in blood with a giant knife in her hand the tension was palpable.  (Plus, her hair was down which, at least in Shakespeare, is stage shorthand that she's a crazy person.)

 

Her aria is a beautiful love song which is in giant contrast to both her bloodstained appearance and the fear of the other characters on stage.  She sings as if she is narrating her own wedding to Edgardo who, again, is not present though she seems to see him.  The aria is really acrobatic and accompanied by a lone flute, not the entire pit orchestra.  This kind of gives the feeling that the aria is a duet with an instrument only she can hear, which is a great musical reflection of the madness the audience is seeing.  

 

As I said above, it's a show stopper and sounded really difficult.  Also she was lying down for part of it, which I doubt makes it any easier.  Breckenridge's performance was pretty mind-blowing and got a huge ovation.  Even the orchestra stopped to clap.

 

I also very much liked that the White Walker / ice zombie dancers came back for this scene and Lucia seemed to be the only one who could see them, another reflection of her madness.  She drew back from them when they got close and got increasingly frantic as they danced around her in a constantly tightening circle.   And all the stage lighting turning a deep red at the climax of the scene before she falls off the table and the spirits catch her was a really stunning effect.

 

I was also really impressed with the ensemble's acting in this scene.  When Lucia firsts arrives, she embraces a man that she addresses as Edgardo and that actor seemed genuinely shaken, and the way he backed off once she let go really sold it. Then when Lucia is wandering the stage singing and aimlessly waving the bloody knife around, everyone instinctively stepped back from her in terror.  And, given the Game of Thrones setting, most of them were armed themselves which just conveyed their fear even more strongly.   Even after she drops the knife, they still flinch from her when she steps towards them.   

 

And as a side note, there was actually a visual joke during this scene that really worked.  When Lucia drops the knife the first time and wanders away from it, one of the cast members (I think it was Opera Orlando company member Jose Cuertas but I'm not sure) quietly tiptoed over, gingerly picked it up and put it on one of the tables, away from her.  Later in the scene she wanders over to the table and picks it up again, frightening everyone.  She then drops it on the ground again and walks away and Cuertas, after a pause of the absolutely perfect length, tiptoed over and gingerly picked it up again and put it back on the table.  It was very funny the second time but also managed to not break the tension of the scene.  It might have been the only moment of levity in the whole show.  I don't know even know if everyone saw it, but there were some chuckles in the audience so at least some did.

 

Some Production Changes

 

There were a couple of changes from the standard libretto at the end of Act I.  In this production, after Edgardo charges into the wedding, a fight breaks out and he is captured by Enrico's men and put into the Winterfell dungeon, which is where he is when Enrico challenges him to a duel at the start of Act 2.  

 

This injects a little bit of geographical confusion when we see next see Edgardo in his family crypt and he can see the lights of Winterfell.  In the original libretto, Edgardo just leaves Lammermoor after the wedding and Enrico meets him at Edgardo's home in Wolfscrag.  I guess Enrico just letting Edgardo go after he crashed the wedding doesn't make a whole lot of sense so capturing him works with the setup better, but it does mean it's a little weird that Edgardo is in the dungeon and then just suddenly isn't.  But maybe Enrico let him out after the challenge?  All of this does give Enrico a certain code of honor; he could have just had his men shiv Edgardo in the dungeon and been done with it.

 

I suppose this change might have been a result of the setting.  If we're in Westeros, Edgardo's home in the Iron Islands is way too far away for Enrico to just pop in and challenge him, like he does in the libretto.  (Well, maybe in season 8 they could have done it.)

 

None of this is important or distracting at all and the greater suspension of disbelief on stage makes it not that weird when Edgardo is just there at the end.  (Les Mis does something similar after Valjean reveals himself to Javert and then somehow gets away so they can have the Confrontation later, so he can then escape again. This is completely different than in the book; where he doesn't get away.)

 

One other change that might be fairly standard for this opera but I didn't see in the libretto is that Lucia's body is onstage at the end when Edgardo kills himself.  I think it's a great change, if a small one.

 

Conclusion

 

Overall I give this show 4.72 mandolins (remember, this is the highest score you can get).  I really enjoyed the production and it also made me very curious about the novel.  

 

How close or loose is the opera's plot to the novel's?  How is Lucia portrayed? Is she passive?  What about Enrico? Does Lucia kill Arturo and does she do it on page? Did Donizetti and Cammarano preserve the themes and mood from the novel or did they do their own thing?

 

I guess I'll find out soon.

 

m

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