SFOpera - Out of their Minds

Out of their Minds

Allied to words in the medium of opera, music can take us to areas of experience that elsewhere might be uncontainable. Music inhabits a terrain beyond reason, and so is capable of depicting madness—and opera composers from Christoph Willibald Gluck to Alban Berg have allowed audiences entry to a world more usually associated with the analyst’s couch. 

We can follow Gluck’s Orèste, in Iphigénie en Tauride, through the psychic disintegration attendant on matricide, or the hallucinations of Berg’s Wozzeck, driven to murder by an abusive society. Yet the most famous association of music with mental instability lies in a phenomenon known as the “mad scene.” The term is associated with climactic moments in Romantic opera in which the heroine loses her mind and expresses this in an aria of phenomenal difficulty.

The best-known example is the mad scene from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, first performed in 1835. Yet Donizetti was after more than vocal display. His aim was to present a cogent portrait of mental collapse, of which Lucia’s aria was the culminating expression.

Working in the century after the French Revolution, Donizetti was dealing with ambivalent attitudes to female sexuality. Lucia is driven insane by three men—her lover, her brother, and a priest—all acting in response to her attempts to control her own destiny. Her madness, meanwhile, takes the form of fantasies of the sexual life she might have led had she been allowed to determine it herself.

The opera is set in Scotland in the years that saw the fomentation of the Jacobite rebellion. Lucia’s madness is also consequently emblematic of a country riven with factionalism. Her family, the Ashtons, led by her brother Enrico, are disgraced royalists, who can only reclaim their status by arranging a marriage between Lucia and Arturo, scion of an influential Edinburgh clan. Lucia, though, has fallen in love with Edgardo Ravenswood, an enemy Jacobite, and is prepared to brave political and familial danger to meet him in secret.

Edgardo, far from being conventionally heroic, is prone to the violence that dominates his own family history. One of his ancestors killed his mistress and dumped her body in his fountain. Lucia, in her opening aria, claims to have seen the woman’s ghost. Donizetti, with unerring dramatic instinct, leaves it open as to whether this is the first sign of madness or a metaphysical portent of disaster. It is by the same fountain, however, that Edgardo, finicky about Lucia’s devotion, forces her through a ceremony of exchanging rings and tells her they are married in the sight of God.

In his absence, the Ashtons break down Lucia’s resistance to the wedding. Enrico intercepts her correspondence with Edgardo and fabricates evidence that her lover has been unfaithful. He is aided by the chaplain Raimondo, who lectures her about family duty. Lucia—”now exhibiting the first symptoms of mental disorder,” according to the stage directions—capitulates. The wedding is interrupted by the return of Edgardo, who, believing Lucia to be unfaithful, wrenches his ring from his finger and curses her.

Lucia’s descent into madness follows. On her wedding night, she kills Arturo with his own sword, and is later found by Raimondo muttering: “where is my husband?” This leads to the mad scene itself. Lucia imagines Edgardo’s voice calling her to join him at the fountain, but the phantom of his ancestor’s murdered mistress rises before her. In terror, she then imagines herself and Edgardo fleeing to a church where a minister is waiting. The section that follows is often described as a fantasy of her wedding to Edgardo, though the sensuality of the libretto indicates that she is fantasizing about sex with Edgardo during their own wedding night.

The implications of the scene, however, point beyond a depiction of mental crisis to a crisis in musical structure. Major operatic arias in Donizetti’s day had become formalized to the point of ossification. Donizetti, however, cannily depicts madness by blurring the dividing lines between the conventional sections and introducing distorted reminiscences of material heard previously in the opera.

The absent Edgardo’s voice is represented by a solo flute [for this production, glass harmonica] that summons Lucia with a twisted version of the music associated with the haunted fountain, then tenderly recalls their earlier duet, and finally twines itself sexually around her voice. Its progress is shattered when Lucia catches sight of Enrico, which forces her to recall the disrupted marriage ceremony. In the final section, she imagines herself united with Edgardo in heaven as both her voice and the flute seem to leap away from the earth.

Lucia’s scene is often regarded as a prototype, which is not necessarily true. Donizetti’s first great mad scene, similar in stance and style, is found in Anna Bolena, his unhistorical take on the life of Anne Boleyn, the work that put him on the musical map in 1830. His greater contemporary, Vincenzo Bellini, was already active on the operatic scene. Bellini shared many of Donizetti’s preoccupations, though there were differences in attitude and methodology. His brief career opened and closed with the mad scenes of Il Pirata in 1827 and I Puritani in 1835. At the mid-point came La Sonnambula in 1831, in which sleepwalking is portrayed as a form of mental disturbance.

In his depictions of madness, Bellini is more intensely feminist than Donizetti, viewing it as a female response to male brutality. In Il Pirata, Imogene, trapped in an enforced marriage, is confronted by her former lover and sinks into derangement when both men accuse her of sexual betrayal, and her lover then kills her husband. Amina’s nocturnal wanderings in La Sonnambula take her into the wrong man’s bedroom, leading first to rejection by her fiancé Elvino, then to a second dangerous sleepwalking episode.

Where both Lucia and Anna Bolena live out fantasies of an alternative erotic reality, Bellini’s heroines focus on the obsessive repetition of present emotional pain. Imogene’s mind is lost in visions of her lover’s execution for the murder of her husband; Amina re-enacts Elvino’s desertion. Bellini’s musical methodology differs, too. The madness of both heroines is conveyed in vast melodies with no thematic repetition, a procedure that Verdi followed in Lady Macbeth’s Sleepwalking Scene.

In I Puritani, however, Bellini comes closer to Donizetti’s model. Set in England during the Civil war, the opera has its heroine, Elvira, caught between Arturo, the Cavalier who loves her, and Riccardo, the vindictive Roundhead who drives her insane by telling her that her lover has betrayed her. Her madness, like Lucia’s, consists in acting out erotic fantasies, though Bellini brings her on stage garlanded with flowers. The nod to Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is obvious.

The Romantics found Ophelia fascinating, though at the same time they drew away from the swirl of obscenities Shakespeare wrote for his character. When she made it to the operatic stage, in Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet, first performed in Paris in 1868, she did so in an un-Shakespearian form. Thomas’s Hamlet has been castigated as a travesty, most frequently for the excision of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Fortinbras. The crucial change, however, lies in the way Thomas makes both Gertrude and Polonius co-conspirators in Claudius’s plot to murder Hamlet senior, which allows him to rewrite Shakespeare along the lines of Lucia di Lammermoor.

The moment Hamlet has divested himself of “Frailty, thy name is woman,” he collides with Ophelia during Claudius’s coronation celebrations, and like Donizetti’s Edgardo makes her swear an oath of absolute fidelity. His discovery that Polonius was complicit in his father’s murder leads to a brutal public rejection of Ophelia, during which he, too, tears off her ring. Her own mad scene is modelled on Lucia’s, though in place of Donizetti’s sexual fantasies, Thomas substitutes prudish dreams of a contented marriage, while an off-stage chorus, coaxing Ophelia to drown herself, replaces Lucia’s flute.

Ophelia’s aria is usually regarded as the last important piece in the genre, which it isn’t, quite. Schoenberg’s soprano monologue Erwartung, written in 1909, is effectively a mad scene without an opera, as a distraught woman relives the murder of the man she loved. Schoenberg’s antecedents are usually cited as Wagner, Brahms and Mahler, but Erwartung’s methodology has much in common with Donizetti and Bellini. Conventional operatic structures—and with them tonality—have now totally collapsed. Bellini’s equation of madness with unrepeating melody is paralleled by Schoenberg’s insistence on athematic material, in which no phrase occurs twice.

Marie Pappenheim, a Viennese psychiatrist who studied with Freud, wrote the libretto for Erwartung. Freud’s own work links madness with the leakage into consciousness of frustrated sexuality, or with the repetitive abreaction of trauma in a manner curiously pre-empted by Donizetti and Bellini. Freud mentions neither composer, but listening to their mad scenes, one can’t help but be amazed that both composers understood Freudian theory before it even existed.

In the past, Lucia di Lammermoor became almost a parody as a coloratura soprano’s showpiece and sometimes a showstopper. The extraordinary vocal pyrotechnics were not a part of the original 1835 score, nor was the scene at first performed solely with a flute accompaniment. The mad scene does include coloratura passages, but these are not extravagant or ostentatious; they mirror Lucia’s madness. Donizetti did not write ornamentation or roulades that would highlight only the voice: the music as written is essential to the drama and the display of Lucia’s state of mind. All of the coloratura was composed originally to exploit the fine vocal gifts of the first Lucia, Fanny Tacchinardi-Persiani. A glass harmonica would accompany Lucia’s solo appearances: the first at an abandoned fountain before meeting her beloved Edgardo in Act I and her grand finale in Act III.

Donizetti had intended for a glass harmonica to accompany and interact with the soprano and the flute. The glass harmonica, a musical instrument developed by Benjamin Franklin in the 1760s, is a series of glass bowls seemingly stacked on their sides within one another mounted on a rotating spindle, powered either by a foot-operated treadle (much like the old manual sewing machine) or by an electric motor. As the bowls spin, the musician places moist fingertips on the glass, which through friction produce eerie, spooky tones. (A similar tone can be created by rubbing on the rim of a crystal glass with moistened fingertip.)

For the premiere, however, Donizetti was forced to remove the part for the glass harmonica and rescored the music for a solo flute. The cause for the change remained unclear only until recently: Earlier in the season, the Teatro San Carlo utilized the glass harmonica for a ballet. Recent research uncovered a more practical explanation—in the midst of a pay dispute with the management, the glass harmonica player sued the theater, which in turn, dismissed him from further service. Seeing no other alternative, Donizetti simply rescored the part for solo flute.

Before copyright became the norm, keeping the music together—minimizing cuts, substituting arias, and making other musical changes without the permission of the composer—was equally difficult. Some time after the successful premiere, Fanny Tacchinardi substituted the fountain aria “Regnava nel silenzio alta la notte e bruna” (“Dark night reigned in silence”) with “Perché non ho del vento l’infaticabil volo?” (“Why do I not have the tireless flight of the wind?”) from Donizetti’s Rosmonda d’Inghilterra that had premiered a year earlier at the San Carlo. Tacchinardi made the substitution for her first stage entrance in consideration of her stage fright, for this aria is not as difficult to sing as the original from Lucia. It is not known if Donizetti approved of this change before 1837. However, for the 1839 Parisian performances of Lucie de Lammermoor at the Théâtre de la Renaissance, Donizetti supervised the reworking of the score and approved of Tacchinardi’s substitution. The aria, now translated as “Que n’avons-nous des ailes…” (“If only we had wings…”), was incorporated into the score, and Meissonnier published the results of Donizetti’s ministrations in French that same year. (Virgin Classics recorded Natalie Dessay in this version in 2002 from performances at Lyon Opera.) Other major changes have included omitting the “wolf’s Crag” where Enrico meets Edgardo in the ruins of the Ravenswood Castle, informing Edgardo of Lucia’s impending nuptials and challenging him to a duel. Even the final scene with Edgardo’s great aria, “Fra poco a me ricovero darà negletto avello” (“Soon, a neglected tomb shall cover me”) was not immune; sometimes the opera would end after the mad scene in the belief that nothing could compare to the soprano’s demise.

Not until long after the premiere did the coloratura virtuosity entrench itself into the mad scene, thanks to Nelly Melba’s performances as Lucia in 1889 at the Paris Opéra. The inserted cadenza—a virtuoso vocal passage—occurs at the end of the cantabile, “Ardon gli incensi” (“The incense is burning”) before Enrico’s entrance into the scene. Three years later, a report of Melba’s performance at La Scala noted, “It is a long time since it has fallen to us to hear anything more perfect, more electrifying. The enthusiasm was such that the aggressive audience vigorously demanded an encore, which the diva courteously provided.” Several versions of the cadenza were published, and the music spread to other sopranos—some gifted, and many not. Here, an irony: early in the life of Lucia di Lammermoor the mad scene was not considered a tour de force, nor was it as highly regarded as its equivalents in Bellini’s Il Pirata (1827) and I Puritani (1835), or Donizetti’s own Anna Bolena (1830).

Sopranos after Melba have reigned supreme with their displays of vocal virtuosity accompanied by the flute. In San Francisco, the performances of Lily Pons, Anna Moffo, Joan Sutherland, and Beverly Sills in the twentieth century continued to spread the fame of Lucia di Lammermoor.

“So, you have ta’en up your bonny bridegroom?” Gaetano Donizetti and Lucia di Lammermoor