Lucia di Lammermoor- Il Dulce Suono: Gaetano Donizetti

It's the late 1800's.  You're in Scotland.  Your name is Lucia and you're in love with a guy named Edgardo.  Your brother, Enrico, is kind of a jerk and really hates this guy.  You end up vowing to get married to your love, Edgardo, even though some dead chick's ghost tells you it's totally a bad idea.

Your brother, being a jerk, forges a letter from Edgardo that says he's totally not into you and that whole vow thing was a big joke. Plus, he's totally into this new chick who's way hotter than you are anyways. Enrico and your chaplain both agree that Edgardo is a loser and that you really should marry this other guy Arturo instead.  You agree, but still feel weird about it.

Suddenly, Edgardo returns!  But you've already signed the marriage contract with Arturo because your brother's a jerk!  Edgardo gets super mad and tramples his ring you gave him into the dirt and storms off. You kinda black out from this point forward.  Something about Edgardo and your brother fighting, but you're not really sure what you're doing or what's going on around you for a bit.  Everything's wishy-washy and in Italian (but sometime later French).

So, you finally come to and you're in the middle of your wedding reception! Yay!  All of your friends and family are here!  And the best part?  You're totally married to Edgardo after all! But where's Arturo?  

Why do you have that knife in your hand?

Why is your dress covered in blood?

And why do you feel these things are somehow related?

And that's where our Listening Friday example comes in.  Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) was an early Romantic era composer from Italy.  He was a master of what was known as the Bel Canto style of opera composition, a style that you will probably be familiar with as the generic opera singer 'sound'.  It uses a lot of the more expressive and zealous tendencies of the operatic style (big, fancy, loud).  'Bel Canto' translates from Italian to 'beautiful singing', contrasting with the Wagnerian style of opera, which was also beautiful, but in a more Vikings and thunderbolts kinda way.  

Kill the wabbit?
Donizetti was not born into a musical dynasty, in fact his dad was the town's pawn broker. He received a good music education and eventually wrote a whole mess of operas.  He also is known for several works for piano, chamber ensemble (which is a small group of similarish instruments), a few concertos, and a handful of other orchestral and choral works.

Lucia di Lammermoor is often considered his magnum opus.  It was based on a novel (the Bride of Lammermoor) by the Scottish author, Sir Walter Scott, and follows roughly the same plot detailed above.  Donizetti was capitalizing on European interest in Scottish culture at this point in history, as well as the death and retirement of his main operatic competition around the time he composed this work.

This work is highly pervasive in modern culture, so I wouldn't be surprised to find out that you have in fact heard bits of it, perhaps even the excerpt we'll look at today.  The second act of the opera features a sextet called, "Chi mi frena in tal momento?' (Who is holding me back at this time?).  In some way, it's become a sort of anthem for mobster/gangster movies. Fans of the original Scarface will recognize it from when Tony was about to axe someone.

Hipsters liked Scarface before Pacino.

It also was used in Martin Scorsese's masterpiece, "The Departed".  One scene where Jack Nicholson is actually watching a performance of the opera and another where it's revealed that his cell phone ringtone is the sextet.  I'll include a recording of this work as well, because if you like Il Dulce Suono, you'll really like this Chi mi frena.

Il Dulce Suono is best known to most of us today through its performance in Luc Besson's "The Fifth Element".  The crazy, blue alien, Plavalaguna, performs it before getting shot in the stomach.  This rendition was actually sung by an Albanian singer named Inva Mula, who incidentally did not have to dress up like a blue alien and get shot.  That was the job of the French actress, Ma├»wenn Le Besco, who was for a time Besson's wife.

Luc Besson was marrying tall, blue women with tails before James Cameron even sank the Titanic.

I really like this opera in general because I feel it fully embodies every element a good opera needs: There's fighting, there's forbidden love, there's murder, and there's a chick who completely loses her freaking mind and scares the hell out of everyone at her wedding.

Il Dulce Suono is better known by its common name, "The Mad Scene".  As described above, Lucia is getting married to Arturo, but goes nuts and murders him slasher-movie-style.  After doing this she walks out to her wedding reception where basically everyone in Scotland is there.  She has no idea what's going on nor recollection of what she did, but she imagines that she is actually married to Edgardo and everything's cool.

Hey little sister!  What have you done?
Everyone is pretty much freaked out, as you might imagine, and when Enrico comes back he initially starts to yell at his sister but quickly realizes that she's not all there upstairs. She ends up dying from being hysterical or some other opera-related disease.  Edgardo, who previously agreed to fight Enrico, finds out that Lucia is dead and kills himself with his dagger, heading off life at the pass to meet Lucia in heaven.

Happily ever after?

Il Dulce Suono in operatic circles has essentially become the handbook for sopranos who want to be recognized for their extreme range, placing them in the category of "Coloratura Sopranos".  This is like being the Kerri Strug of vocalists.  Essentially, you have a super light, agile and flexible voice with incredible range and ability to sing in the stratosphere.

Interesting side note: The solo flute you'll hear in the recording was originally supposed to be a glass harmonica.  This instrument was played much in the same way that you can run your finger along a crystal glass to make it ring. Benjamin Franklin invented a horizontal version that utilized a lathe-like desk with glass rings that rotated quickly through a basin of water. By placing your fingers on the different pieces of glass you could make them ring, and play it in a similar fashion to keyboard instruments.

Dammit, Jefferson!  I shall not play the Chicken Dance again!

The glass harmonica has an interesting (and persistent) story alongside it that anyone who plays it too much becomes super depressed or just plain crazy.  In the 1800's, they called it melancholia, but later on some claimed that the lead in the crystal would cause lead poisoning.  There's no science to back this up, but this instrument sounds as unsettling as anything.  The perfect accompaniment to a post-homicidal bride who loses her mind.

Homework: Think of a time your brother (or sister, I guess) wouldn't let you do something you didn't want to do.  Share this with them.  : )

See you next Friday.


Natalie Dessay is performing the Mad Scene at the Met in 2011.


Here's the Sextet with Pavarotti!