Looking for the True Donizetti––II

by Andrew Hudson on December 24, 2011

It’s time to wrap up my postings about Donizetti’s opera “Lucia di Lammermoor” with some new findings.

Adelina Patti was reverting to tradition when she had HER “Lucia” productions end with the heroine’s mad scene and collapse.

This was the convention in Donizetti’s day: an opera would end with some tremendously powerful solo singing for the soprano in which she surpasses everything else she has sung in the previous scenes.

Donizetti decided to be radical and to break with tradition. He composed a balancing last scene in which the hero––the tenor––kills himself after also singing some most beautiful music.

This death scene wasn’t in Sir Walter Scott’s novel that the opera was based on. There, the hero rides off to fight duels with Lucia’s brother and new husband, but, oblivious to what is happening around him, he rides into a quicksand and gets swallowed up by the bog.

To streamline the story and focus on the romance, Donizetti and his librettist Cammarano dispensed with Lucia’s parents who’re very much THERE in Scott’s novel. There, her father approves of a match between Lucy and Edgar, scion of the rival family, but her mother comes home from a trip and forces Lucy to marry the wealthy Arthur instead. In Donizetti’s opera Lucia’s brother does this.

Then that glass harmonica which was such a feature of our Washington DC production that came here from London. While Donizetti had this instrument in the orchestra, it was later producers of his opera who thought up the idea of having the glass harmonica echo Lucia’s outpourings in her mad scene. This brilliant and effective innovation subsequently got transposed into Lucia’s phrases being echoed by a flute.

So we’re unlikely to ever hear this opera as Donizetti conceived it. Meanwhile, we have the 1955 live recording from Berlin, where the orchestra, conducted by von Karajan, and the singers, headed by Maria Callas, do superlative justice to Donizetti’s soaring music.

As I wrote before, some connoisseurs consider this particular performance the absolute peak of Callas’s career.

We can be grateful that it got recorded, so we can listen to it, today.

And now it remains for me to wish all my readers many blessings in the New Year 2012!

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Looking for the True Donizetti––I

by Andrew Hudson on December 5, 2011

Last posting I wrote how the Washington National Opera production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” was magnificent in its sound, but outrageous in its visual staging. And before that I wrote how the recording of the live performance in Berlin of the Herbert von Karajan production of “Lucia” with Maria Callas in the title role was sublime.

I’ve done a little research and found that I was correct in recalling that von Karajan was the stage director as well as the conductor of that 1955 production. I discovered that while he conducted the music brilliantly, as the stage director he was trying, like the director of our WNO production, to be “avant-garde” and sensational in his visual effects.

Nicola Benois, the renowned set designer, refused to work with him once he learned of von Karajan’s concept for staging the opera. And Maria Callas, so out of this world in her singing, detested von Karajan’s staging.

Von Karajan used back projections for the sets, and for Lucia’s Mad Scene, he had Callas stand in a spotlight engulfed by darkness. I guess he wanted to highlight the beauty of her singing, and to hell with story, to hell with realism! At the start of her mad solo you can hear the footsteps of the chorus as they back away from center stage, so that Callas stands alone in the single light.

Folks who were there said her gestures were also most moving: she raised, lowered, halted her arms in their billowing sleeves to accentuate the drama, the explosion and retraction of feeling.

Something else in this Callas performance was peculiar to her. She dispensed with the dagger that Lucia traditionally is still holding in her hand when she enters after stabbing her new unwanted husband to death. And there’s no trace of blood on her garments.

Callas believed that supplying evidence of the violence in the story detracted from the purity of the music. So she stood there, dagger-less, singing sublimely in a performance that several connoisseurs have deemed the absolute peak of her career.

All the blood that stage directors heap on nowadays, all the additional violence, is unnecessary.

Directors always want to ADD, as though the original opera is somehow wanting. Mary Zimmerman, director of the current New York Metropolitan Opera’s “Lucia” (you can find it on You Tube) brings in the ghost of a murdered fiancée from bygone years which Lucia has seen and sings about before meeting her lover Edgardo by a rustic fountain.

This additional “silent character” wanders in briefly (we’re never told why!) at the start of the next scene, in which Lucia’s brother Enrico bullies her into marrying the wealthy Arturo by showing her a forged letter where Edgardo supposedly writes of a new love.

Mary Zimmerman, who loves magic and fairy tales, created an utterly enchanting production of Shakespeare’s play “Pericles” at the Shakespeare Theatre here: so sometimes her ideas “work.” In each country Pericles visited on his travels, the royal family wore a different color clothes. And the reunion of Pericles with his long-lost daughter Marina was most moving, truly miraculous.

In the Met’s “Lucia,” Zimmerman has Lucia come on for Edgardo’s death scene as yet another ghost, dressed in her bridal gown. This ghost of Lucia lies down next to Edgardo and helps him plunge his dagger into his breast, then kisses him as he dies.

The poor hero, rendered incapable of killing himself by himself! In our WNO production which came from the ENO in London, bad brother Enrico walked into the last scene carrying the dead body of Lucia which he propped on a chair. (Imagine! And neither of them are supposed to be in this scene!) Enrico then placed a pistol on the ground where Edgardo couldn’t miss it, and after the fatal shot broke Edgardo’s neck to make sure he was truly dead.

But I suppose a final assisted suicide is kinder to the tenor and to the beautiful Last Act arias that Donizetti wrote for him, than the performances of “Lucia” in the late nineteenth century where famed soprano Adelina Patti insisted that the final scene where Edgardo kills himself be entirely CUT. The opera had to end with HER Mad Scene, not with HIS death!

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“Lucia di Lammermoor” in Washington, DC––my second visit

November 22, 2011

Something of reversal, or a revelation. A new discovery, thanks to listening to my inner voice! Yes, it was strange. Towards the end of the first performance that I saw of “Lucia” here, with all of its “crazy” staging, looking something like a Victorian nursery or (as some reviewers noticed and I didn’t) like a [...]

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“Lucia di Lammermoor” in Berlin, 1955

November 15, 2011

The heights. The aesthetic heights. The burst of Spring. The exaltation. That was how it was yesterday evening when I listened to the von Karajan–Callas live performance of “Lucia di Lammermoor” in Berlin in 1955. I was blown away. As critic John Steane says in his liner notes, “The great singing actress, the great conductor, [...]

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My Long Absence

November 8, 2011

I haven’t written on this site for a long time because of an illness from which I could have died. Suffice it to say, I had another attack of cellulitis, a strange disease that blocks the blood from returning to the heart, so that one’s lower leg or legs and feet get very red and [...]

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Another happy find

August 30, 2011

Note: This post was originally written on Thursday, March 10, and posted on March 12, 2011, on the first incarnation of this blog. After I posted my first Blog last week, I had another very happy find. I discovered pages from the 1980s of color photos of my prints, that included photos of the models [...]

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Two glimpses from the past: my art, my writing

August 30, 2011

Originally published on March 1, 2011. Starting a blog is a strange thing to do. The first question I ask is, “Will other people be interested in what I write?” Then I remember how many people have said they’ve enjoyed my annual Newsletter and how when I was art critic to The Washington Post from [...]

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My two grandfathers

August 30, 2011

Originally posted on March 28, 2011. Two weeks ago I wrote about how things get repeated in families from one generation to another. Today I want to write about my grandfathers. I have a theory that we tend to resemble our grandparents. For it’s customary for people to rebel against their parents, so that when [...]

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Myself and Matisse

August 30, 2011

Originally posted on March 20, 2011. Even while I’ve begun to make art again in my studio, it seems that these days are all about rediscovering art that I made in the past. Last year I put together photo books on my two newest series of paintings, both of which I began in the 1990s. [...]

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