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Mad About Donizetti's 'Lucie Di Lammermoor'

In opera, as in life, it's often a mad, mad, mad, mad world. So it's no surprise that mad scenes in opera abound. They represent a chance for a singer to strut his -- or usually her -- stuff, with vocal pyrotechnics that can run as wild as the character's deranged mind.

Of all of opera's unhinged ladies, the title character in Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor sets something of a gold standard for going bonkers. Forced into marrying someone she detests, Lucia stumbles into act three, wielding a bloody knife, freshly used to slice up her betrothed, all the while hallucinating and rambling on about the man she really loves.

Lucia's mad scene is long and intricate, with vocal lines that stab, float and fly off in many directions. It can be a tour de force for a great soprano with the dramatic and technical skills.

Lucia di Lammermoor was the 47th of Donizetti's roughly 65 operas, and it was a huge success at its 1835 premiere in Naples. And from there it spread: Three years later, it played in eight cities from Portugal to Poland; the year after that, it played in six more, including Algiers and Odessa, and from there to Havana, St. Petersburg and other cities.

By the time Lucia was produced in Paris in 1839, French composer Hector Berlioz announced that Donizetti's conquest of Parisian theaters was complete. And he wasn't happy about it. Donizetti -- and other composers of the bel canto style -- was all the rage, pushing aside the heavier works, like Berlioz's own operas.

By the early 1840s, Donizetti was splitting his time between Paris and Vienna, living about half the year in each city. He still managed to squeeze in trips to Italy, all the while working on new projects and supervising the staging of older ones. In fact, the older he got, the more he worked; he enjoyed his hectic pace.

But it wasn't only the music world that was taken by the Donizetti storm. Lucia di Lammermoor appears in novels, as well. Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Where Angels Fear to Tread -- all feature performances of the opera as part of their stories.

Donizetti based his opera on the highly popular novel by Sir Walter Scott called The Bride of Lammermoor. It's about as Gothic a tragedy as you can get -- primitive, windswept landscapes, castle ruins, blood feuds, ghosts, murder and madness. It's all there.

In this edition of World of Opera, Lucia di Lammermoor has even something more -- French language. Host Lisa Simeone presents Lucie di Lammermoor, Donizetti's retooled version of the original that he prepared for the Theatre de le Renaissance, in Paris. Those familiar with the Italian version may be surprised to find a few differences, among them the shortening of the role of the chaplain, and the removal of the role of the maid, Alisa, leaving Lucia as the only woman in the opera.

This production, from Glimmerglass Opera, stars Sarah Coburn in the title role of Lucie and Raul Hernandez as her lover, Edgard.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

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