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the bride of lammermoor

30 june 2020

Early in The Bride of Lammermoor (1819) we are introduced to the castle called Wolf's Crag,

which, tall and narrow, and built of a greyish stone, stood glimmering in the moonlight, like the sheeted spectre of some huge giant. A wilder or more disconsolate dwelling it was perhaps difficult to conceive. The sombrous and heavy sound of the billows, successively dashing against the rocky beach at a profound distance beneath, was to the ear what the landscape was to the eye—a symbol of unvaried and monotonous melancholy, not unmingled with horror. (Chapter 7)
Can you get more Gothic than that? It's as if Walter Scott were describing the set for an opera, though it would be a few years till Gaetano Donizetti composed Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), and Scott would expire before seeing it.

I am very fond of Lucia di Lammermoor – I was going to say "crazy about" it, but that might seem insensitive. I suppose that's true of most opera fans. Some opera composers attract haters: Wagner more than others, perhaps, but there are opera buffs who find Mozart too familiar, Verdi too inconsistent, anybody later than Verdi too weird. If you google "Donizetti overrated," however, you may at most find a few people who prefer Rossini or Bellini. And the most popular of Donizetti's compositions is Lucia di Lammermoor.

Salvadore Cammarano, the librettist, is in good part responsible for the success of Lucia. He took Scott's lifeless Gothic tale and pared it down to pure conflict. The center of Lucia di Lammermoor is a triangle: Lucia loves Edgardo, who loves her; Edgardo hates Enrico, who hates him; Enrico is Lucia's brother. Enrico has found somebody else, a tepid tenor named Lord Arturo, for Lucia to marry. Poor Arturo, about to die the most gruesome offstage death in the history of opera, appears long enough to sing in the second-act sextet, but barely makes an impression on the plot dynamic.

In Scott's novel, the same situation prevails, but it takes two-thirds of the book to kick into action, as if Scott never had much interest in the plot of his own novel. Lucy Ashton, daughter of the current Lord Keeper of Castle Ravenswood, loves the rightful but expropriated Master of Ravenswood. Lucy's father thinks Edgar is OK, but Lady Ashton, Lucy's mother, has latched onto an alcoholic laird named Bucklaw, and insists Lucy marry Bucklaw instead. Various other Ashtons keep showing up with their own opinions, including the family chaplain, who is quite a fair-minded and judicious fellow.

Interminable stretches of The Bride of Lammermoor lose the thread completely. A big player in Scott's novel, and apparently a character beloved by Scott's contemporary readers, is Caleb Balderstone, the fussy and mendacious butler of Wolf's Crag. Caleb spends most of his time trying to trick everyone into thinking that Edgar isn't completely on his uppers, and without much effect, because the Ravenswood household is obviously bankrupt. Caleb's masterstroke is to pretend to burn the castle down so that the neighbors will take pity on him and send him food. This sounds more poignant than it is; Scott plays the scene for slapstick.

Then there's the legal minutiae, and the chorus of countryfolk chattering about everything in broad Scots but advancing the story not at all, and big political doings in the British Isles that Cammarano reduces to the single noun phrase "le sorti della Scozia" and then mercifully forgets about. There is really no way to get through The Bride of Lammermoor without skimming copiously.

There is a brother in Scott's novel, and he is named Henry, but he's about twelve years old. He spoils one of Lucy and Edgar's Romantic dates by killing a raven with his crossbow, so that it lands on top of the lovers and spatters them with gore. Annoying as this little monster may be, he is no Enrico, and it was a solid move on Donizetti's part to reshape the role for a baritone instead of a boy soprano.

Meanwhile, Cammarano and Donizetti kill off Lucia's parents before the opera begins, tidying up the family situation. Her isolation, beset by an overbearing brother and a gloomy bass of a family priest who keeps stressing victimhood and sacrifice, works to heighten the gloom and set up Lucia's eventual madness. And that madness proceeds organically from her character. Lucia di Lammermoor is, shall we say, highly strung from the word "go," or rather from the words "Ancor non giunse!" – "He still hasn't come!" as she impatiently bursts into song on her initial entrance.

Scott's Lucy, by contrast, is pusillanimous. She just goes along with whatever and barely has three words to say for herself. She is the title character, for heck's sake, but she seems to have no agency or desires, except a perfunctory tilt toward Edgar that seems too weak to sustain the weight of the tragic plot. About nine-tenths of the way through the novel, Scott reminds us that

We have described [Lucy] in the outset of our story as of a romantic disposition, delighting in tales of love and wonder, and readily identifying herself with the situation of those legendary heroines with whose adventures, for want of better reading, her memory had become stocked. (Chapter 30)
Honestly, if Sir Walter did describe her that way at the outset, readers have long forgotten it, because he's barely shown us Lucy since. That he needs to gaslight us by pretending to have injected a character note 200 pages earlier shows some of the flaws in the novel's construction.

Worse still (spoiler time), Scott's Lucy doesn't even competently kill her own husband. In the third act of Lucia di Lammermoor, even in productions where we are shown no corpse, there is no doubt that Arturo is stone dead and quickly cooling. In The Bride of Lammermoor, Bucklaw not only survives but gets better. What kind of Gothic outcome is that?

Edgar, in the novel, more Romantically rides off into quicksand. All that is left of him is the feather from his hat floating atop the sands. (When I told my partner about this, she started to tear up thinking of the poor horse.) The mechanics of riding into quicksand, let alone singing the finale in the process, being difficult to translate to the opera stage, Cammarano and Donizetti settle for having Edgardo stab himself.

In the 2018 Madrid production, available for streaming on YouTube, Edgardo shot himself, with a pistol conveniently left within reach by the bloody-minded Enrico. I suppose he has dispatched himself in many different ways over the centuries, depending on directors' concepts for the opera. But the Madrid production, though it has its quirks, is a magnificent musical drama. Javier Camarena as Edgardo, Lisette Oropesa as Lucia, and Artur Rucinski as Enrico kept topping one another in electric moments of beauty and passion, causing the Madrid audience to go nearly frenzied with appreciation. One of the weirder aspects of the production turned out to be inspired by Walter Scott, of all people. The characters in Madrid kept hanging and replacing family portraits on the walls of the set, pointlessly as it seemed. But in a stray detail from The Bride of Lammermoor, Lucy replaces Ashton portraits on the walls of her family's home with pictures of vengeful Ravenswoods. Ya see, you have to read the book to get all the information.

Though I've seen and listened to several Lucias now, the first one I saw was on DVD. It was actually Lucie de Lammermoor – another country heard from – and it was the version that Emma Bovary saw at a crucial juncture in her novel. Though one imagines that Emma saw Lucie in a different production; hers was live in Rouen over 150 years ago, and mine was taped in Lyon in 2002. Lucie de Lammermoor has the same idea and mostly the same music; but with several minor characters added and subtracted, it's different enough that it's arguably a separate opera. I love that opera, too.

Scott, Walter. The Bride of Lammermoor. 1819. Kindle Edition.