Page to the opera stage: ‘Lucia Di Lammermoor’ & the romance of Scotland
Page to Opera Stage is about stories – real or fictional, old and new – that inspired operas and the way these narratives have been edited and dramatized to adapt them to a new medium. This week’s article takes a look at Sir Walter Scott’s “The Bride of Lammermoor” and Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” – two stories that romanticize very different aspects of Scottish history and the story of Star Crossers.
Think of Scotland, and it is likely that Sir Walter Scott had something to do with the conjured image. The early 19th century writer, historian, poet, and politician mythologized Scotland’s stories and tales through fact, fiction, and often both. Two series of several novels – “Waverley and Tales of My Landlord” – are set predominantly in Scotland’s cities, borders and highlands, with an emphasis on the Lothians in which he was born. He “rediscovered” Scotland’s Crown Jewels (although they were left unopened in an unopened box for 100 years). In 1822 he orchestrated the royal visit of George IV – the first of a seated British monarch since James VI. Had left Scotland to become James I of England, Scotland and Wales. To this end, he led a pageant of the history of tartan and reconciliation and consolidated national ceremonial attire in public forums.
Scott was forward-looking in his commitment to Scotland’s image and identity – its historical sovereignty and current power within the UK poised as actors for its future.
This attention caught the imagination of artists from all over Europe. Just as Shakespeare brought many of his most famous plays in Italy to continental sources, so Tudor Britain – especially Scotland – was of great importance to European artists in the early 19th century. Scotland’s history of colonial defiance and internal clashes, fueled not least by Scott’s translated words, provided a great opportunity for romance and provided a dramatic backdrop for personal and political showdowns on the side and stage.
Many bel canto composers were completely affected by this fever, perhaps especially Gaetano Donizetti. His “Maria Stuarda” adapts Schiller’s romantic idea of Mary Queen of Scots with an even stronger anti-Protestant inclination, and the mixture of fact and fiction, romance and ancient rivalry of “Lucia di Lammermoor” characterizes it as a staple of today’s operatic repertoire.
The latter is based on Scott’s “The Bride of Lammermoor”, which was written in 1819 as the fourth episode in “Tales of My Landlord”. The playwright Salvatore Cammarano wrote the libretto and generously adapted Scott’s novel from an Italian translation. The key events and the most melodramatic facets of Scott’s story land on Donizetti’s stage, but a simplified political sensibility and drastic character changes turn the sprawling novel into a narrow bel canto tragedy.
Politics versus romance
“The Bride of Lammermoor” is supposedly actually based; Scott spends his prologue cataloging his resemblance to a real-life incident in the Lammermuir Hills south of Edinburgh – and reassuring his readers that his version was entirely fictional – though the veracity of Scott’s source is disputed. But its fictionalization is similarly rooted in Scottish history even with changed names and places. The noble Ravenswood family loses their title and ancestral seat after the Ravenswood Patriarch supported the crushed Jacobite uprising that sought to restore James VII to the throne after the glorious revolution of William and Mary in 1688. Edgar Ravenswood, the last of his family, swears vengeance on the Ashtons who now run the property. But of course he falls in love with Lucy Ashton and finally looks for a love marriage that also supports his independent career opportunities. And of course tragedy intervenes.
This premise will sound a bit strange to opera fans only familiar with Donizetti’s version. Scott’s novel spends most of his time with The Master of Ravenswood – Edgar / Edgardo – and the “violent and irresistible passions” that fuel his desire to regain his home and take revenge. His perspective is prioritized throughout the novel, even if his lover gives the book his name. Donizetti removes much of the political context to this hostility. The Jacobite uprising is never mentioned in connection with Edgardo’s fortune – Enrico simply describes him as “the mortal enemy of my family (quel mortale nemico di mia prosapia)” and Edgardo curses Enrico for robbing him of his ancestral possessions (“Mi tolse il padre, il mio retaggio avito ”).
In fact, the only reference to historical British politics is an anachronistic, ahistorical one: Enrico uses the death of William II and Mary II’s only place on the throne to emphasize his need for Lucia to marry Arturo and secure the family fortune suggesting that his prospects may have disappeared with the king. In reality, Mary died before William, leaving him as sole monarch on the throne from 1694 to 1702. It is an enigmatic moment that nevertheless perfectly underscores the opera’s commitment to the fictional and sensational.
Except for national policy, family policy is similar in both versions. The Ashtons are broke and the Ravenswoods are evicted from their home, and the Ashtons struggle financially after looking after the Ravenswood estate. Money plays a key role in the choice of Lucy / Lucia’s future husband, and the Bucklaws have no shortage of funds. The stage is set for tragedy – and the person leading the arranged marriage is the most interesting change between the Scott and Donizetti / Cammarano dramas.
Dead or dangerous mothers
In Donizetti’s opera, Lucia’s grief over the death of her mother is mentioned throughout – first by Raimondo while hunting with Enrico, later by Enrico with Arturo to excuse the bride’s less enthusiastic attitude towards her wedding. Her father also passed away, although more recently this is implied. Enrico has thus become head of the house, and his ambition and dislike of the Ravenswoods fuel his insistence that his sister marry Arturo. It is not necessarily written compassionately and places self-preservation and status above Lucia’s love and well-being.
Enrico’s counterpart in Scott – Henry – is a child who happily supports Lucy but is unwise about the politics behind her broken engagements and quick marriage. Your parents and other siblings are very much alive. Lord Ashton initially even supports an association between Lucy and the Master of Ravenswood.
… His daughter – his favorite child – his constant playmate – seemed happily to live in association with a spirit as authoritative as Ravenswood; and even the fine, delicate, fragile form of Lucy Ashton seemed to require the support of the muscular strength and masculine character of the master. And not just for a few minutes did Sir William Ashton view their marriage as a probable and even a desirable event. A full hour intervened before his imagination was crossed by the memory of the Master’s poverty and the sure displeasure of Lady Ashton.
“Sure, no sane woman would hesitate. But unfortunately -! “Here his reasoning was stopped by the knowledge that Lady Ashton was not always sensible …
Not only does Lady Ashton live in Scott, but also the cruelly ambitious family member who convinces Lucy of Edgar’s infidelity and strengthens her into a marriage that breaks her heart and mind. Lord Ashton resigns immediately when Lady Ashton, described as a person who “understands every machine to break the human mind,” makes her own political plans. These of course lead to the madness and death of their daughter and to the dissolution of the desired union. But just as important for Lady Ashton is the death of the Master of Ravenswood – and with it she achieved a successful, long life.
A magnificent marble monument records their names, titles and virtues, while their sacrifices are indistinguishable from the grave or epitaph.
The unhappy bridegroom doesn’t die in Scott’s version; he only asks that no one speaks of his attack anymore. Lucy, the “unwilling and willing victim,” dies. Edgar doesn’t die of his sword, but in quicksand. Donizetti’s minor changes at the end are easier to convey on stage and fit into the romantic nature of early 19th century drama. He leaves Enrico’s fate undetermined. Perhaps he too lives on like Lady Ashton, his grave is splendidly marked when the names of Lucia and Edgardo are forgotten.
But ultimately Lucy / Lucia is the driving figure, regardless of power games and perspectives in Scott or bel canto styles. Observe a young woman with no net worth or political commitment who seeks love and is too fragile or artless to survive when she is pushed into the machinations of others. Her constant reinvention on today’s stages makes Lucia di Lammermoor an integral part of the repertoire and offers countless opportunities to adapt to the strengths and productions of the individual sopranos.
All quotations are from Salvatore Cammarano’s libretto for Lucia Di Lammermoor and Sir Walter Scott’s Die Braut von Lammermoor, the full text of which is available from Project Gutenberg.