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A Scottish Tragedy

By Harley Schlanger
February 2011

Review of “Lucia di Lammermoor”
Opera by Gaetano Donizetti

Libretto by Salvatore Cammarano
Presented by: Houston Grand Opera
January 28 to February 11, 2011

Premiere: September 1835 in Naples, Italy
Revised in 1839 for Paris

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Photo: Felix Sanchez

Albina Shagimuratova (Lucia) and Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Alsia).

The bleak, gray scenery, which dominates the otherwise minimalist setting done by Liz Ascroft in the Houston Grand Opera's superb production of “Lucia di Lammermoor,” represents more than just the dark, foreboding climate of Scotland. The ominous clouds, which are constantly moving up and down on stage, through the rise and fall of panels, are metaphors for the dismal state of Scotland, following the demise of the Stuart kings, and the loss of its sovereignty, in the aftermath of the takeover of the English crown by William of Orange, and, as such, provide a prescience of the deeper tragedy Donizetti has in mind, in taking up this story based on a novel by Sir Walter Scott, “The Bride of Lammermoor.

This background is key to understanding the tragedy of “Lucia” on the deeper level, as something more than just your standard girl-loves-boy, family-intervenes-and-marries-her-off-to-another, whom-she-kills, before-dying, garden variety soap opera tragedy, so common in popular culture today.

Donizetti, who had Scottish ancestry on one side of his family, was quite familiar with the political and social culture of the British Isles during the turbulent years of the Tudor and Stuart monarchies. He wrote three operas, in addition to Lucia, on this period. These include his first great success, “Anna Bolena,” in 1830, about the second wife of Henry VIII, whose desire to marry her precipitated the break of England with Rome, leading to periodic outbreaks of violent religious warfare within the British Isles during the next one-and-three-quarters centuries; and “Maria Stuarda”, which he composed in 1834, based on Friedrich Schiller's powerful drama, of the struggle between Henry VIII's daughter Elizabeth, and her rival Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland.

His “Maria Stuarda” bears some relevance for “Lucia,” as it is the story of the battle between Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I, for the crown of England. Though Mary fails to achieve her goal – she was ultimately executed, by order of Elizabeth – she achieved a measure of revenge, posthumously, when her son, King James VI of Scotland, was crowned King James I of England in 1603, upon the death of Elizabeth, who left no heirs.

The Stuarts and Scotland

The reign of the Stuarts, during the seventeenth century, was one of tumult, often bordering on chaos. During the course of that century, the Stuart kings reversed much of what had been accomplished in the early part of the Tudor reign, in particular by Henry VII, who had built England as a nation state. While Henry VII made deals, to expand the wealth and keep the peace, with many of the contending factions which had dominated the island during the ill-fated reign of the Plantagenets – think of Shakespeare's Richard III, who Henry VII defeated to become king; the century before Henry was crowned was shaped by the One Hundred Years War against France, and then the “War of the Roses,” of brutal internecine warfare, courtesy of the Plantagenets -- he encouraged everyone to act for the benefit of the whole nation. The early Stuarts, in contrast, often used their position to benefit their Scottish countrymen, and acted repeatedly for narrow interests, often against the Parliament, which led to their ultimate downfall.

The Stuart monarchy was guided by the intervention of the Venetians, in the person of Paolo Sarpi, who intended that England become the center of a new empire, modeled on Venice. As such, there was no room, in Sarpi's design, for an independent, prosperous Scotland. Though the Stuarts, in the early part of their reign, might bestow a bit of largess on their people, a Venetian-style empire has little concern for the well-being of the people who are their subjects. Thus, the Stuart monarchy would ultimately turn its back on Scotland, despite their claim to be first among the Scottish clans!

James I, the first of the Stuart kings, was succeeded by his brother, Charles I, who lost his head in 1649 following the English Civil War, when forces under Oliver Cromwell established a short-lived Commonwealth. The Stuarts regained power in 1660, with Charles I's son becoming King Charles II. Charles II had been proclaimed King Charles II by the Scottish Parliament, following his father's execution in 1649, but this proclamation went unrecognized in England, until after the defeat of the Commonwealth.

The Stuart monarchs' problems with the parliament, which had been a consistent feature throughout their reign, flared up again after Charles II's death, in 1685, when his brother took power, as James II. The reign of James II was cut short by his nephew and son-in-law, William of Orange, who deposed him in 1689, in what is known as the “Glorious Revolution,” defeating him in battle, and sending him fleeing to exile in France.

Though William was a relative of the Stuarts – his wife, Mary, who reigned with him as “William and Mary,” was the daughter of Charles II – the Stuart connection with Scotland was irreparably weakened, following the fall of James II. William, who had been Stadtholder of Holland at the time of the Glorious Revolution, had little connection with the remaining Scottish supporters of the Stuarts. By the time his wife Mary died, in 1694, leaving him as sole monarch of the British Isles, Scotland's power had been drastically reduced, its sovereignty virtually gone – a state which, much to the chagrin of Scottish nationalists, continues to the present day.

In the period when the opera is set, late in the reign of William (who died in 1702), or early during the reign of his successor, Queen Anne, Scotland's power within the British Isles had been eclipsed. The Act of Settlement of 1701 established the German House of Hanover as successor to the Stuarts. It was passed with the intention of ending any Stuart claim to the throne, and the Scottish Parliament was not even consulted in adopting this Act.

Thus, when William died, Scotland was no longer a sovereign state, nor even an equal partner as a state within Great Britain. With its loss of political power, its economic power declined, and its “noble” families were reduced to competing, squabbling clans, engaging in vicious infighting against each other, in a vain attempt to gain some slight advantage.

Lucia as a Real Tragedy

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Photo: Felix Sanchez

Albina Shagimuratova as Lucia di Lammermoor.

This is the real political backdrop to Donizetti's “Lucia,” which provides an understanding of the deeper, more profound tragedy in the opera. While the story of Lucia's fate is “sad” – she has no control over her destiny, she is manipulated by her conniving brother and his lying cohorts, and is forced to marry someone she doesn't love, against her will, who she kills, before she dies – this might qualify the opera to be placed in the category of being a tear-jerker, but would not stand up, as such, to consideration as a true classical tragedy.

That is why it is so necessary to see it in the context described above, as a story within a specific historic context, so that the actions of the figures on stage, can be seen not as the playing out of mere “family dramas,” but as events shaped from above, in which the tragic flaws of the whole society are the subject of the drama, and not merely “bad things” that happened, due to individual “bad decisions.”

The tragedy in Lucia is that, with Scotland's future as an independent power in doubt, the clans of noble families lacked a vision for the future, of how to regain sovereignty and economic strength. Instead, local hatreds and vendettas dominated, as in the case of Enrico, who not only opposes a marriage between his sister, Lucia, to Edgardo, but has a homicidal hatred for him, as he had for his father, whom he had killed. Edgardo wishes to appeal to Enrico, to be able to marry Lucia, before leaving the country, but is convinced by Lucia that it would be in vain, and thus departs, without attempting to resolve the problem.

Edgardo's abrupt departure is one clue that Donizetti intended the tragedy to be bigger than that of personal rivalries and unfulfilled love. Edgardo says that he must go to France, on a mission for Scotland. Could it be, that he was seeking an alliance with France for Scotland, for reasons related to Scotland's vassalage under England, to bring back a measure of sovereignty to his native land?

We never know, because Edgardo doesn't tell his plans to Lucia before leaving. And, when he returns, whatever his mission to France was, is no longer of any consequence, as he succumbs to a jealous rage, when he discovers that Lucia has signed a wedding vow, to accept the choice made for her by her brother. Then, after hearing that Lucia had died, after killing her new husband, instead of rallying himself to act for a higher purpose, perhaps as a way of honoring her, Edgardo kills himself – a selfish action, which negates any possibility that he might act for the good of the nation.

The other hint we have to show that Donizetti had a sense of greater strategic significance in mind, in composing this opera, is Enrico's statement that, by marrying Lucia off to Arturo, his family's circumstances, which had declined dramatically in recent years, under William and Mary, may improve, by forging a new alliance through marriage.

Yet, the effort to form this alliance, by forcing a key role on his sister, against her will, shows that he was trapped in a deadly political geometry. The failure of the Stuarts, on top of the failure of Henry VIII and Elizabeth, to establish a secure future for the people of England – and of Scotland -- stemmed from precisely this kind of “family diplomacy.” Instead of returning to the vigorous pursuit of the principle of the sovereign nation state, which was the legacy of Louis XI of France, and Henry VII of England, whose triumph over the dysfunctional Richard III (Plantagenet) had the backing of Louis XI's networks in France, the period of degeneration under the Stuarts, which continued under William and Mary, had created a political realm in which family and dynastic concerns were more important than those of advancing the good of a nation.

Thus, Scotland was condemned, from that time, through Donizetti's lifetime, until today, to be an appendage of a new Venetian-style, British Empire. It was condemned by the littleness of its nobility, which was trapped in vengeful feuds, incapable of rising up to the level of statecraft which had been achieved in the not-so-distant past. Keep in mind, that when Donizetti wrote this, what was true for the failed Scotland of Lucia was equally true for his Italy, which was divided, and strained under the yoke of the Austrian Hapsburg, and French Bonapartist, Empires.

HGO Captures Donizetti's Tragic Vision

In classical tragedy, there are no “tragic heroes,” only failed cultures. The intent of the tragedian is to cause members of the audience to recognize the axioms which prevent the actors on stage from breaking with what seems to be a “tragic fate.” This intent was discussed by Friedrich Schiller, in his “Theater Considered as a Moral Institution,” in which he writes that the goal of such theater is to have members of the audience emerge from the drama uplifted, having recognized similarities between their society, and the failed society portrayed on stage, their resolve strengthened to break with similar behavioral patterns in their society.

Instead of being the passive victims of a “tragic fate” befalling their society, the members of the audience are thus presented with an opportunity to self-consciously act against the axioms, which would otherwise doom their society, by reflecting on what doomed the actors on stage, who failed to break free from the axioms and traditions of their failed society.

To present such a tragedy effectively, the company, from the director on down, must have some sense of this higher tragedy. I cannot say, for certain, that this was a fully conscious decision by director John Doyle, but his production of the Houston Grand Opera's (HGO) Lucia did leave the audience with little doubt that this was, indeed, a failed, doomed society, done in by the thinking and behavior of its leading actors.

Scott Hendricks as Enrico, portrayed him well, as a self-seeking, vengeful figure, and Dimitri Pittas as Edgardo, showed that, despite his words of love for Lucia, and wish for reconciliation with Enrico, he was doomed to fail in his desire to improve relations between the clans, and the conditions of Scotland. Both sang, and acted, their parts well, and the scene when they agree to a duel was very effectively staged, as whatever illusion one might have had about Edgardo, that he might be able to rise above the fray, was brilliantly dispelled, when he responded to Enrico's taunts, the two of them puffing out their chests and standing nose to nose, as though they were a pair of angry baboons.

His later suicide was therefore not so surprising, as it was clear he was more of an egotistical macho, than a statesman.

Beau Gibson as Normanno, and Oren Gradus as Raimondo, both performed exceptionally, in their roles as flunkeys, with Gradus quite successful in portraying the conflicted role assumed by religious confessors in that period, torn between earthly loyalty, and their sense of responsibility for the souls of those who were damaged by the decisions of those they served. Both Gibson and Gradus are alumni of the HGO Studio Artist program.

Special mention must be made of the extraordinary performance of Albina Shagimuratova as Lucia. Often, Lucia's “mad scene” is performed in such a way as to be “over-the-top,” as though this will bring more sympathy to one who has been so destroyed by the consequences of her brother's decision. Shagimuratova performed the scene in a manner which was understated, which actually heightened the sense of horror.

Lucia is a victim in this opera, who was destroyed by her brother's manipulation and her lover's jealous rage. However, she was not fully innocent, as she had urged Edgardo to NOT speak with her brother, the one act which might have led to a different outcome. Obviously fearful of the anger this would unleash in her brother, she chose the course of avoiding conflict – a conflict which, left unresolved, would lead to a deadly conclusion, as it did.

Shagimuratova's clear and powerful, yet transparent singing was a delight throughout, including in the famous duets with Edgardo. This was pure “bel canto,” as was intended by Donizetti.

For the most part, the orchestra, under the direction of Antonio Fogliani, was crisp, transparent and dramatic. My one complaint was the very opening scene, in which it was very hard to hear the plotting of Enrico, with Normanno and Raimondo. Fortunately, this was quickly resolved.

Did the audience get Donizetti's intent, as outlined above? If not – and I suspect most did not get it, as the numbing corruption of our contemporary culture has the effect of leaving even opera lovers pursuing shallow pleasures – it was not the fault of the HGO production.


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