Lucia di Lammermoor is back in Chicago at the Lyric Opera. It was last presented just five years ago this month, when soprano Susanna Phillips kept us in the audience spellbound, and a bit apprehensive, during the opera’s famous “mad scene” as she moved up and down a tall winding staircase without railings. The staircase is gone in this season’s production but the set and the singing were just as outstanding.
Lucia is widely regarded as Donizetti’s masterpiece, written when the composer was just 37 years old and premiering in Naples in 1838. The plot is simple, especially by opera standards, featuring proverbial “star-crossed” lovers in Scotland caught up in a blood feud between their families. The tragedy is set in motion when Lucia’s brother Enrico and a retainer trick her, with a lot of browbeating thrown in, into marrying an aristocrat for her brother’s benefit rather than the man she loves. Unfortunately, besides not being rich and influential her lover Edgardo happens to be her brother’s enemy. Returning from an overseas mission, Edgardo bursts in on the scene just as the marriage is completed and confronts Lucia, each one mistakenly feeling betrayed by the other. The famous sextet breaks out as the six major players simultaneously express their various emotions and desires. The just-married Lucia, learning that her lover was true after all, goes mad and tragedy ensues.
As popular and famous as it is, I must confess that the opera’s so-called “mad scene” is not one of my favorite parts. The long, multi-part Act 1 love duet is splendid, the deservedly famous Act 2 sextet is a highlight in all of opera, and the moving Act 3 lament by Edgardo that ends the opera is wonderful. But opera aficionados do love that mad scene, in which sopranos over the years have added their own vocal embellishments to an already difficult score. In his critical treatment The Opera, Joseph Wechsberg writes that the “Mad Scene is a ne plus ultra tour de force for prima donnas ... Afterwards, nineteen other composers wrote ‘mad scenes’, giving their prima donnas such murderous fioriture [florid embellishment of a melody] that only a ‘mad’ woman would be expected to sing them.”
The recording I enjoy is from 1971 with a truly all-star cast – Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Chicago’s very own Sherrill Milnes, and Nicolai Ghiaurov, with Sutherland’s husband Richard Bonynge and the Covent Garden Orchestra and Chorus. Opera doesn’t get any better than that.