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The libretto was adapted from Scottish author Sir Walter Scott’s then-celebrated novel The Bride of Lammermoor, published in 1819.
Sept. 26, 1835, Naples
The opera was a critical and popular success. With Rossini’s retirement and Bellini’s recent death, Donizetti’s had become the reigning king of Italian opera.
Donizetti wrote of its reception:
“… at the risk of sounding immodest … Lucia… judging by the applause and compliments I received, pleased the audience very much. Every number was listened to in religious silence and then hailed with spontaneous cheers.”
The libretto for Donizetti’s Lucia was based on Sir Walter Scott’s extraordinarily popular The Bride of Lammermoor. Europe was experiencing a romantic fascination with Scotland at this time and three librettos based on The Bride of Lammermoor were already in existence when Donizetti was composing Lucia.
With the success of Anna Bolena, Donizetti achieved a high level of fame and creative control as musical director of the Royal Theatres of Naples. Lucia was the first of three operas he was contracted to compose for the house. He finished the composition in less than six weeks, but its performance was delayed by financial difficulties experienced by the opera house management resulting in the leading soprano refusing to rehearse until she was paid.
Lucia’s mad scene, the showpiece of the score, provides sopranos with a musical and dramatic tour de force. Originally Donizetti wrote the aria with a glass harmonica accompaniment, but when the glass harmonica player abruptly quit over a complaint about his pay, the flute was substituted. The cadenza that traditionally caps the mad scene does not appear in the score; Soprano Fanny Tacchinardi-Persiani, who created the role of Lucia and who was renowned for her skill as an improviser, may well have been responsible for it. Although Donizetti, who heard her in 1833, described her voice as “rather cold, but quite accurate and perfectly in tune,” her performance of Lucia the Paris debut, in December 1837, was received with acclaim bordering on hysteria. Donizetti recounted in a letter that she made a terrible fuss because, after Lucia's “Mad Scene,” there remained the finale of Edgardo, giving the tenor the final applause.
Anna Christy as Lucia in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor, 2013. Photo: Chris Hutcheson