“Page to Opera Stage” looks at stories – real-life or fiction, old and new – that have inspired operas, and the ways these narratives have been edited and dramatized to fit a new medium. This week’s article looks at Sir Walter Scott’s “The Bride of Lammermoor” and Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” – two stories that romanticise very different aspects of Scottish history and the tale of star-cross’d lovers.
Think of Scotland, and it is likely Sir Walter Scott has something to do with the conjured image. The early 19th-century novelist, historian, poet, and politician mythologised Scotland’s stories and histories through fact, fiction, and often both intertwined. Two series of multiple novels – “Waverley and Tales of My Landlord” – are predominantly set in Scotland’s cities, borders, and highlands, with special focus paid to the Lothians, where he was born. He “rediscovered” Scotland’s Crown Jewels (though they were just left in a box, unopened, for 100 years). In 1822 he orchestrated George IV’s royal visit – the first from a sitting British monarch since James VI left Scotland to become James I of England, Scotland, and Wales. For this, he stage-managed a pageant of tartan and reconciliatory history, cementing the national ceremonial dress in public forums.
Scott was forward-thinking in his commitment to Scotland’s image and identity – its historical sovereignty and current power within the United Kingdom poised as players for its future.
This attention captured the imagination of artists from around Europe. Just as Shakespeare set many of his most famous plays in Italy, to continental sources, Tudor Britain – specifically Scotland – held great appeal for European artists in the early 19th century. Scotland’s history of colonial defiance and internal clashes, in no small part advanced by Scott’s words in translation, held great opportunity for romanticism, providing a dramatic backdrop for personal and political showdowns on the page and stage.
Many bel canto composers were fully swept up in this fever, perhaps most notably Gaetano Donizetti. His “Maria Stuarda” adapts Schiller’s romantic idea of Mary Queen of Scots with an even stronger anti-Protestant bent, and “Lucia di Lammermoor’s” blend of fact and fiction, romance and ancient rivalry marks it as a staple of today’s operatic repertoire.
The latter is based on Scott’s “The Bride of Lammermoor,” written in 1819 as the fourth instalment in “Tales of My Landlord.” Playwright Salvatore Cammarano wrote the libretto, liberally adapting Scott’s novel from an Italian translation. The key events and most melodramatic facets of Scott’s tale end up on Donizetti’s stage, but a simplified political sensibility and drastic character changes turn the sprawling novel into a tight bel canto tragedy.
Politics Versus Romance
“The Bride of Lammermoor” is ostensibly based in fact; Scott spends its prologue cataloguing its similarity to a real incident that took place in the Lammermuir hills south of Edinburgh – and ensuring his readers that his version was entirely fictional –, though the veracity of Scott’s source is disputed. But his fictionalisation, even with changed names and locations, is similarly rooted in Scottish history. The noble Ravenswood family loses their title and ancestral seat after the Ravenswood patriarch supported the crushed Jacobite rebellion, which sought to restore James VII to the throne after William and Mary’s Glorious Revolution in 1688. Edgar Ravenswood, the last remaining of his family, swears revenge on the Ashtons who now steward the property. But of course, he falls in love with Lucy Ashton and eventually seeks a marriage of love that would also aid his independent career prospects. 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 its time with The Master of Ravenswood – Edgar/Edgardo – and the “violent and unresisted passions” that drive his desire to reclaim his home and have his revenge. His perspective is prioritised throughout the novel even if his beloved gives the book its name. Donizetti removes much political context to this enmity. The Jacobite rebellion is never mentioned in connection to Edgardo’s fortunes – Enrico refers to him merely as “that mortal enemy of my family (quel mortale nemico di mia prosapia)” and Edgardo curses Enrico for having robbed him of his rather and ancestral holdings (“Mi tolse il padre, il mio retaggio avito”).
Indeed, the only reference to historical British politics is an anachronistic, ahistorical one: Enrico uses William II’s death and Mary II’s sole place on the throne to emphasise his need for Lucia to marry Arturo and secure the family fortune, suggesting his prospects may have vanished with the king. In reality, Mary died before William, leaving him on the throne as sole monarch from 1694 until 1702. It is a puzzling moment that nonetheless perfectly emphasises the opera’s commitment to the fictionalised and sensational.
National politics aside, the family politics in both versions are similar. The Ashtons are broke, and the Ravenswoods are cast out of their ancestral home, and the Ashtons are struggling financially after assuming care of the Ravenswood estate. Money plays a key role in choosing Lucy’s/Lucia’s husband-to-be, and the Bucklaws have no shortage of funds. The stage is set for tragedy – and the person driving the arranged marriage proves the most interesting change between Scott’s and Donizetti’s/Cammarano’s dramas.
Dead or Dangerous Mothers
In Donizetti’s opera, Lucia’s grief at her mother’s death is mentioned throughout – first by Raimondo when hunting with Enrico, later by Enrico to Arturo when looking to excuse the bride’s less-than-thrilled outlook at their wedding. Her father is also deceased, though it is implied less recently. Enrico has thus become the head of the house, and his ambition and antipathy towards the Ravenswoods fuels his insistence that his sister marry Arturo. He is not necessarily written sympathetically, putting his self-preservation and status above Lucia’s love and wellbeing.
Enrico’s counterpart in Scott – Henry – is a child, happily supporting Lucy but unwise as to the politics behind her broken engagement and swift marriage. Their parents and other siblings are very much alive. Lord Ashton is even initially supportive of a union between Lucy and the Master of Ravenswood.
…his daughter–his favourite child–his constant playmate–seemed formed to live happy in a union with such a commanding spirit as Ravenswood; and even the fine, delicate, fragile form of Lucy Ashton seemed to require the support of the Master’s muscular strength and masculine character. And it was not merely during a few minutes that Sir William Ashton looked upon their marriage as a probable and even desirable event… a full hour intervened ere his imagination was crossed by recollection of the Master’s poverty, and the sure displeasure of Lady Ashton.
“Sure, no reasonable woman would hesitate. But alas—-!” Here his argument was stopped by the consciousness that Lady Ashton was not always reasonable…
In Scott, Lady Ashton is not only alive but also the cruelly ambitious family member who convinces Lucy of Edgar’s infidelity and strongarms her into a marriage that breaks her heart and mind. Lord Ashton immediately backs down when Lady Ashton, described as one who “understands every machine for breaking in the human mind,” poses her own political schemes. These, of course, result in the insanity and death of her daughter and the dissolution of the sought union. But of equal importance to Lady Ashton is the death of the Master of Ravenswood – and that achieved, she lives out a successful, long life.
A splendid marble monument records her name, titles, and virtues, while her victims remain undistinguished by tomb or epitaph.
The unfortunate bridegroom does not die in Scott’s version; he merely asks that no one speak of his attack again. Lucy, the “ungrudging and ready sacrifice,” dies. Edgar dies not on his sword but in quicksand. Donizetti’s slight alterations to the ending are easier to convey on stage and fit the romantic mode of early 19th century drama. He leaves Enrico’s fate unspecified. Perhaps he too lives on like Lady Ashton, his grave marked in splendour as Lucia’s and Edgardo’s names are forgotten.
But ultimately, regardless of power plays and perspectives in Scott or any bel canto stylings, Lucy/Lucia is the driving figure. Watching a young woman with no fortune or political stake, seeking love, and too fragile or artless to survive when thrust into others’ machinations. Her continual reinvention on today’s stages keeps Lucia di Lammermoor a staple of the repertoire, with endless ways to adapt to individual sopranos’ strengths and productions’ themes.
All quotations taken from Salvatore Cammarano’s libretto for Lucia Di Lammermoor and Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor, the full text of which is available at Project Gutenberg.