Wednesday, February 15, 2006 | Opera is full of desperate heroines. If they had lived in today’s hip culture, these femmes fatales would not submit to male domination and bondage. Lucia, the bride of Lammermoor, is one of the most abused and mentally battered women appearing on the opera stage.
San Diego Opera opens the Scottish Highland tragedy, based on a Sir Walter Scott novel and set to music by Gaetano Donizetti, in its full bel canto brilliance on Feb. 18 for four performances in the Civic Theatre.
The tale of the exploited lass begins in a romantic scene with Lucia’s secret lover, Edgardo, who is leaving for business abroad. While away, Lucia’s brother, Enrico, intercepts her lover’s letters. By deception, Enrico forces Lucia into an unwanted marriage to wealthy Lord Arturo to restore the family fortune. A classic tale of male chauvinism. It was enough to drive the poor girl crazy, which she carries off with some of the most florid coloratura vocalizing in her show-stopper Mad Scene.
But wait. Before the soprano hits the high notes, six rival characters gather center stage to sing the Sextet, opera’s best-known vocal ensemble full of conflicting emotions. The lover Edgardo accuses Lucia of forsaking him to marry Arturo, who fumes over the love triangle. Mean brother Enrico berates his enemy, Edgardo, for daring to woo his sister, while the chaplain and Lucia’s lady companion observe that Lucia withers like a rose in a confused state between life and death. All six artists sing their supplications to beautiful mingled harmonies that can only happen in opera.
The drama moves forward with some swordplay to banish the lover as the bride and groom retire to the bridal chamber. It’s the shortest marriage in opera records as Lucia in a frenzied state of mind swiftly stabs her husband. Ian Campbell, General Director of San Diego Opera, likes to quip that Lucia cut the hateful marriage short.
As the horrified wedding guests watch, a deranged Lucia slowly descends the staircase in her bloodstained white nightie singing her signature aria, then collapses in the arms of the chaplain. What a chilling scene this was to the 1835 opening night audience in Naples. Edgardo in exile returns to Scotland to find Lucia laid to rest and stabs himself in despair at her tomb while Enrico admits he made a terrible mistake in the match. It is truly a Scotch on the rocks wedding.
Despite the murder and mayhem, this opera is really about singing. Such typical artistry of the 19th century bel canto style demands a soprano of unique vocal agility. The famous divas of past centuries were Patti, Melba and Pons. By the 1950s, bel canto operas were dismissed as old-fashioned and suitable only for vocal canaries. Then came the dramatic dynamos that put Lucia back on stage. Maria Callas, Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland reinvented the bel canto repertory as singing actresses and launched a whole new series of Donizetti and Bellini operas designed to capture the modern audience.
San Diego is fortunate to have heard the most famous Lucia of modern times, Joan Sutherland. She first appeared on the stage of the old Fox Theatre, now Copley Symphony Hall, with the San Francisco Opera brought here by the San Diego Opera Guild in 1961. Her sensational debut in Venice wowed the delirious audience, and a critic dubbed her “La Stupenda.” Sutherland’s return engagement as Lucia with husband conductor Richard Bonynge was in the San Diego Opera season of 1974.
Donizetti’s “Lucia de Lammermoor” runs for four performances: 7:00 p.m. Saturday Feb. 18 and Tuesday Feb. 21; 8:00 p.m. Friday Feb.24; and 2:00 p.m. Sunday Feb. 26 in the Civic Theatre at the intersection of 3rd Avenue and B Street in downtown. Info: 619-533-7000 or www.sdopera.com.
John Patrick Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and maintains the opera archive at the San Diego Historical Society.