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Side view of theater at dusk with white baffles

Lucia … what’s driving you crazy?

By Don Fineberg

Lucia … what’s driving you crazy?

Mention Lucia di Lammermoor to opera enthusiasts, and the conversation quickly turns to the “famous mad scene” in Act II. Now I wonder how many of us can agree on what actually drives her crazy?  We in the audience have the chance to see it, and in an unsettling way experience it; yet the characters in the opera, including Lucia herself, have no real understanding. We see their horror but we also see that they are mystified!  They cannot see the reason, because every one of the characters cannot really see Lucia, for who she is, for what she needs and for how she loves.

All of the elements of the opera — the brilliant score, insightful libretto and dramatic structure – build to her climactic break with reality. The psychotic Lucia appears in her bloody nightgown, after having stabbed her husband to death on their wedding night. She babbles on about her lover, before collapsing. The horror of the wedding guests dissolves into shocked sympathy.  Shortly thereafter, Lucia herself descends from losing her mind to losing her life. She is as doomed as a flower deprived of water, destined to wilt, wither and die.

Who among us does not long to be seen for who we are, appreciated for what we do? Who among us has not dealt with a parent or a boss or a spouse or a circumstance that requires that we do something we don’t really believe in? Life imposes many variations on this theme. It boils down to this: our true selves are not being seen. This disqualification is at the heart of Lucia’s madness.

Every great soprano makes this role their own. This summer Brenda Rae certainly does. In recent years at the Met, we have seen the waifish Natalie Dessay be crushed to insensibility, and the flashing dark eyes of Anna Netrebko rife with insanity.  For Joan Sutherland, Lucia became her signature role. As different as their interpretations might be, they all arrive at the same conclusion – a Lucia torn apart by a dismissive world.

What makes Lucia so vulnerable and pushes her over the edge? The answer can be found in the very first scene of the first act. The male chorus – the posse led by Normanno (the hunter and retainer of Enrico, aka Lucia’s brother aka Lord Ashton of Lammermoor) sing of their search for the mysterious intruder to the grounds of the castle. They conclude: “The hateful truth will shine out like a lightning flash through the clouds of horror.” They might as well be singing about the shocking horror of the mad scene two acts later – good foreshadowing of the opera’s conclusion. We will get to more about this all male opening later. For now, we want to know more about how Lucia gets there, not just where she ends up. For that we return to this backstory-packed first scene.

Normanno asks his boss Enrico why he’s disturbed. The answer reveals where his sister, Lucia, fits into his priorities. First, his fortunes have waned. Second, he is mocked by “mortal enemy” Edgardo (aka Lucia’s love). And finally, third, Lucia thwarts his plan to marry her off to an influential suitor. He concludes, “She is no sister of mine.”

But as the Chaplain Raimondo reminds him, she was until very recently someone’s daughter. He describes Lucia as an “unhappy girl,” wailing at the recent graveside of her dear mother. He advises Enrico, “Respect her heart, pierced by pain, that shies away from love.”  This puts Lucia’s refusal to marry to suit her brother in a different context. The proposal was urged on her before the opera begins, but Lucia, having had the understanding and support of her mother, was not buying it.

Lucia’s mother is not a character in the opera. However, her death looms in its back-story and her absence rather than her presence looms over the entire narrative as it unfolds. She was the counter balance to the masculine world of violent vendetta and the view of Lucia as seen through the lens of masculine desire rather than Lucia’s own needs and identity.

The back-story continues. We find out in the next lines of the libretto that Lucia is not averse to love. On the contrary, she longs for the genuine love that she lost at her mother’s death. She rejects the notion that she should be married off as chattel in her brother’s schemes. Of course, she would long for another who can truly know her heart. And in fact she does. This is bad news for her brother, Enrico.

The retainer, Normanno, disputes the chaplain’s pleas for patience. The henchman exclaims “Averse to love! Lucia d’amore avvampa!” (It has nothing to do with “vamp” … it means “is aflame with love”) He goes on to explain that a stranger, who turns out to be none other than Enrico’s dreaded rival Edgardo, saved her from charging bull with one crack shot from his rifle. And where did this happen? The rescue occurred at her mother’s graveside, where she had been going every day. And she continued to meet her savior every day at dawn, at the same location, in the presence of the maternal spirit of love and compassion.

The enraged brother, Enrico, proclaims that it would be better if Lucia were struck dead by lightning than to find love in the arms of his hated mortal enemy. And he swears vengeance on the “wretched pair” with his fury that will be “quenched with blood.” (Wow… Very operatic macho.) More back story and foreshadowing, as the opera goes from “quenched in blood” to “drenched in blood” at the terrible mad scene followed by opera’s conclusion where the star crossed lover Edgardo stabs himself in the heart at hearing the news of Lucia’s death – drained of life by her insanity.

But before you waste too much sympathy on his suicide, remember he’s not so innocent in this tragedy. In the second scene of Act I, he exchanges loving vows of betrothal with Lucia after telling her he’s leaving Scotland for France. Basically he wins her heart and then abandons her. One can only imagine how painful this must be for a woman who doubled-down on love to assuage her grief at the loss of her mother, only to find that her lover too abandons her. He also promises to write. Later in Act II, we learn that his letters have been intercepted by her brother. So, she receives none. Finally, a forged letter supposedly from her love Edgardo tells her that he has forsaken her and it crushes her spirit.

Not his fault you say? Well, when he shows up in Act II to find her signing a marriage contract, he doesn’t sadly ask “what happened?”, or “why didn’t you write?”  He lets his hot temper fly. Yes, he may have sung his part in one of opera’s most memorable sextets; but with no understanding whatsoever he attacks his beloved and rips their promise ring from her finger.  Does he even hesitate for a moment to ask himself, ‘why is she still wearing it’? He jumps to all the wrong conclusions. Because of his self-centered, vengeful attitude, he would rather be betrayed than betrothed.  He sees that she hovers fra morte e vita (between life and death) and yet when shown the marriage contract, rather than being hurt, confused or curious, he becomes outraged and he calls her “abominate, maledetta” (abominable, accursed). Edgardo curses Lucia “Ah! May God destroy you!”

Foolish man. It is not God that destroys Lucia. It is you and your enemy, her brother Enrico, with his wedding scheme to sacrifice his sister to bolster his ambitions. Her life, her love, and her very personhood become erased by their macho competition for the right to possess her.

Now is good time to return to all of that foreshadowing backstory in the very first scene. It shows us a world out of balance, filled with anger and vendetta and violence. It begins with a chorus of a coarse mob of men. It lacks compassion and true love. Even the Chaplain who comes to Lucia’s defense at first, telling Enrico to be patient, does not do so in compassionate defense of her personhood, but rather in a practical way suggesting to give her time and she will come around.

Basically, she doesn’t stand a chance. As Ron Daniels, the perceptive stage director of our Lucia observed, the masculine energy that opens the opera sets a tone for the tragedy that follows. Let’s remember:  Her mother is dead. Love is gone. There is no solace to be found. There is no feminine compassion. Lucia turns her crazy imbalanced world inward. It becomes Lucia’s unbalanced mind and ultimately her doom. A world without compassion is a world without true love.

When we meet Lucia in the second scene of Act I, and we hear the heavenly harp play, remember the angel in heaven, Lucia’s mother, who still lives in Lucia’s loving heart. Listen closely to the aria she sings. When the men in her life abandon her, manipulate her, marry her off, drive her insane, and drain her loving spirit from her soul, listen again when this same theme occurs in the haunting music of the mad scene played by the glass harmonica.  It’s what an imbalanced mind in an unbalanced world sounds like. It is a tragic world where men get mad and women go mad.