Preview: Lucia di Lammermoor

Valery Gergiev returns to conduct Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor

For those who associate Gaetano Donizetti with the frothy Elisir d’ Amore or the viciously funny Don Pasquale, Lucia di Lammermoor takes some adjustment. Taken from Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Bride of Lammermoor, Lucia is best known for its now iconic 'mad scene', upon which countless sopranos have built their careers. European audiences were fascinated by Scotland’s misty moors, folk tales and blood feuds, and, indeed, Bride is based on an actual arranged marriage gone horribly wrong. In Lucia, Lord Enrico Ashton is facing a loss of fortunes and possible execution – only his sister’s marriage to Lord Arturo Bucklaw can save him. Lucia refuses; she is desperately in love with (and secretly married to) Edgardo, Lord of Ravenswood.

Given that the Ashtons and Ravenswoods had been feuding for generations, an enraged Enrico reminds her that their fortune, not to mention his life, are in her hands; his pièce de résistance is a forged Dear Jane letter from the absent Edgardo. Dazed and heartsick she signs the marriage contract only to see Edgardo burst in and accuse her of infidelity. But for wedding revellers, the show had just begun. A now-insane Lucia emerges from the bridal chamber in a white bloodstained nightgown; having fatally stabbed Arturo, she now sings of her upcoming marriage to Edgardo before she collapses, and eventually dies. For his part, Edgardo realises that Lucia had always been faithful, and he plunges a dagger into his heart, pledging to join her in heaven.

Set in 1669, the actual story tells of a father ignoring his daughter’s secret betrothal and forcing her into a more advantageous union, driving her to insanity. When wedding guests heard screams from the bridal chamber, they found the groom stabbed and the bloody bride crouching nearby, saying only, 'take up thy bonny bridegroom.' Scott embellished the already shocking story by having rejected suitor Edgardo commit suicide by riding his horse into quicksand, but since this staging – not to mention singing – was too difficult, Lucia’s Edgardo opts for the simpler but equally effective blade.

Although Lucia’s music is haunting throughout, two pieces have come to define the entire opera. First is 'Eccola...Il dolce suono', or the 'mad scene', where the soaring melodies, fluttering flute and the hallucinating bride’s beaming smiles are a tragic, grotesque contrast to her dishevelled hair and bloodstained gown. Done well, this is the most powerful moment in opera. The second is 'Chi mi frena in tal momento', or 'sextet', after Edgardo crashes the wedding; six characters sing the same melody expressing completely different emotions. The piece has appeared throughout popular culture ranging from Scarface (1932) to the Three Stooges. In 1908, opera legend Enrico Caruso and friends sold their recording for 7USD, (140USD today) –pricey, considering today’s free downloads. Since then, it has been called the 'seven-dollar sextet', although the true value is priceless.