Politics of Desire

Classic Arts Features   Politics of Desire
Albert Innaurato maps out the history behind Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.

In six weeks in 1835, Gaetano Donizetti worked out a contract with the Royal Commission of Naples, got the librettist Salvatore Cammarano approved, and wrote the opera, Lucia di Lammermoor.

Writing that fast is a fairly amazing display of dispatch and fluency, although, as it turns out, the haste wasn't necessary. The Royal Commission declared itself bankrupt and it took a long while for Donizetti to force it to produce the opera ("Oh, what a cage of madmen!" he wrote). There were also problems and delays with the first cast who understandably weren't sure whether or not they were going to be paid.

Donizetti chose the subject for his new opera himself, inspired by Sir Walter Scott's 1819 novel, The Bride of Lammermoor, which, in turn, was based on a true story of a Scottish girl forced to marry against her will. To meet Donizetti's demands and to reduce the complicated plot to operatic dimensions, Cammarano had reference to at least three other librettos based on the novel. But it's possible that Donizetti began composing from the novel itself, drawn to obvious opportunities such as the legendary mad scene and the dramatic eruption when the jilted lover bursts in on his unfaithful (he thinks) beloved's wedding.

The Bride of Lammermoor is the fourth novel in Scott's rather chillingly named Tales of My Landlord series. Seriously ill and heavily medicated at the time, the author seems to have been in an altered mental state while writing it. Afterwards he claimed to have no memory of the actual writing and pronounced the tale "monstrous, gross, and grotesque." Despite all that or because of it, The Bride is the most closely knit of Scott's famous series and has a considerable tragic impetus, as well as an intensely political background.

It's a historical novel set against the backdrop of England's Glorious, or Bloodless, Revolution of 1688-89. The story takes place in 1707, but the Revolution colors and causes‹directly or indirectly‹everything that happens. The English King James II was a devout Catholic and alienated most segments of his government and the population by trying to force Catholicism back into the ascendancy. When he had a son in 1688 there was a general fear of an absolutist Catholic dynasty being established. As a result, Protestant statesmen invited William of Orange, James's son-in-law, to assume the crown. William landed with an army, declaring he would protect liberty and Protestantism, and James fled to France.

Parliament then denounced James and officially offered the throne to William and his wife, Mary. There followed some minor skirmishes with so-called Jacobites, including James himself, who tried to return, but William and Mary reigned secure and lived within the limits Parliament had placed on their royal authority.

Scott's tale is about how all these events affected life in a part of Scotland called East Lothian, where an ongoing struggle is being lost by the noble landed gentry (represented by the Ravenswoods, who were loyalists to James), and won by greedy and ruthless middle-class upstarts (the Ashtons).

In 1707, the Act of Union joined Scotland and England and the patriotic Scott seems to be mourning the loss of Scotland's identity as a separate nation, a loss that favors people like the Ashtons. Through Sir William Ashton's devious, politically savvy manipulations, the Ravenswoods have been stripped of all their properties but one, the ruined castle called Wolf's Crag. That is occupied by the gloomy young Master of Ravenswood (Edgardo in the opera).

By chance, Ravenswood rescues both Ashton and his daughter, Lucy, from a stampede of Highland cattle and for a time the father approves of a marriage between the two young lovers. He is motivated in part by a temporary political shift in Ravenswood's favor.

In the novel, young Lucy's opportunistic father looms large; her ruthless mother looms larger. The mother is monstrous and has a direct hand in Lucy's going mad. It is Lucy's mother who drives Ravenswood off.

In the opera, however, the Ashtons are represented by Lucy's brother, Henry (Enrico). He, rather than his mother (who doesn't appear), is the source of the forced marriage between Lucy and the highly connected Arthur Bucklaw, and he, not the mother, fools Lucy into thinking Ravenswood has abandoned her.

The opera is true to a climactic scene in the novel. Ravenswood returns from a foreign trip on the day of Lucy's wedding, confronts the groom and her brother and challenges them to a duel. Lucy goes mad and stabs her husband on the wedding night, dying shortly afterwards.

The opera's elegiac final scene where Edgardo mourns for his lost love, then for Lucia, and finally commits suicide is nothing like the novel. There, Ravenswood, in a ferocious haste to confront his enemies, forgets the quicksand on the shore. He gallops to his death! A large sable feather (Ravenswood's) floats on the rising tide to the feet of Caleb, the faithful family retainer. That provides Ravenswood's epitaph: "The old man took it up, dried it and placed it in his bosom." It's the sole sentimental occurrence in the novel.

In the opera the political background is hastily explained in Act Two by Enrico, but it permeates the novel. So do supernatural elements. There are even three witches in the kirkyard, borrowed from Shakespeare's Macbeth. Many of these elements (though not the witches) survive in the opera in Lucia's first aria, where she tells of seeing an ominous shade at the well.

The novel is extremely gloomy and is the most tragic of Scott's works. His characters are all doomed by an evil destiny. But Donizetti's opera is much less a family tragedy than a work about the ill-fated love between two soul mates, Lucia and Edgardo. Given that choice, the libretto is skillfully made (it's not a surprise that Cammarano, the son of actors, went on to become the most successful librettist of his time); this probably contributed to the opera's having survived in the repertory, even when many of Donizetti's 65 operas, most of them tragedies, had been forgotten.

Albert Innaurato is a playwright who writes often about the arts.

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