Q & A: Jessica Pratt Explores the Great Challenges & Pleasures of ‘Lucia Di Lammermoor’s’ Mad Scene

By Francisco Salazar

“Lucia di Lammermoor” is one of the important canonical works and most divas are measured by their abilities to manage the great challenges of this bel canto opera.

One of the foremost performers of the opera today is Australian soprano Jessica Pratt, who has sung the work in over 20 productions and 80 performances with such companies as Teatro alla Scala, Teatro Regio di Torino, the Festival Internacional de Opera Alejandro Granda, Victorian Opera, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, and Teatro La Fenice among other ouses.

Now she brings her acclaimed interpretation to the Metropolitan Opera for the first time in her career.

In a recent interview with OperaWire, Pratt spoke about the opera’s famous mad scene and the biggest challenges of the work.

OperaWire: “Lucia di Lammermoor” is famous for its mad scene. What makes this scene so special?

Jessica Pratt: Mad scenes were popular at the time “Lucia” was written. In this repertoire, it was common and expected for the prima donna to have a “grande scena” built to showcase all of the requisite talents both expressive and vocal that she was expected to possess at the time. It is a scene that I really enjoy. I love the challenge and that every time I perform it, it can be different both dramatically and musically. Mentally fragile women were a very popular subject at the time Lucia was composed. Amina in “La Sonnambula” and Elvira in “I Puritani” are just a few characters that come to mind, however, these were all women who lost their reason only to regain it by the returned presence of their lover/husband.

Lucia, on the other hand, was one of the first works of this genre in which the mentally fragile woman does not have a reprise from her madness. It was a huge break from tradition, a true madness with no recovery. These operas were written at a time when women were agitating all over Europe for the right to vote and more independence and I cannot help, but wonder if the interest of male composers and librettists to elaborate on this theme of mentally fragile women was some kind of exploration of the social changes underway and the misconception of the time that women could not govern their own lives.

OW: What are the vocal challenges of the scene?

JP: Providing glimpses of that independent spirit and creating the contrasting colors that depict the instability of Lucia’s mind at this point in the opera. Donizetti wrote some complicated coloratura in this scene and it is juxtapositioned with many lyric passages. It is important to produce a good legato in the center with a pure tone and use highly precise, in tempo, coloratura to highlight the extreme changes that Donizetti wrote to depict her fragile state of mind. It is important not to take too many liberties with the tempi or the music in this scene or it risks losing its shape: Donizetti wrote a very expressive scene and I aim to sing it using the indications on the score. It is important to emote while keeping the voice calm. Making sure that, although I am portraying many different contrasting emotions, I am able to portray them through the music and staging while keeping the vocal line clean, not sacrificing the beauty of the legato or resorting to cheap tricks like cries, laughing, or audible breathing which can have an effect on the public but which have no place in this music.

OW: Speaking more generally, what is the most difficult part of the scene and what is your favorite part of it?

JP: “Alfin son tua, alfin sei mio.” This is the most beautiful and delicate moment in the mad scene. Every time I perform it I try to sing it as quietly as I possibly can, bringing the voice to the most fragile that it can be without breaking. I want to achieve the color of innocence and demonstrate pure trust in the line to draw the audience into Lucia’s world. I feel that it is the only moment in the opera where Lucia is finally centered and sure of something despite her madness. This sentiment is very real for her and it is an incredibly beautiful moment.

OW: How do you pace yourself especially when the scene has so many changes in mood and tempi?

JP: The mad scene is particularly long so it requires a lot of stamina. This, however, is very common in much of the bel canto repertoire I perform so I just keep myself trained every day both with vocalises and working separately on my breathing exercises. Repertoire choice is a big part of keeping myself prepared and in shape for this type of challenge and constantly singing bel canto heroines means that my voice and body is accustomed to the requirements of the score. It’s like running a marathon: one doesn’t prepare for it by going for a light walk a few days before. It requires months of consistent focused training.

OW: How does acting figure into the singing of the scene?

JP: I think in a scene like this for me it is important to be able to leave myself over to it and not have to think about saving myself or my voice, to make sure that all the technical work is done before I go onstage so that when I step in front of the audience I am free to lose myself completely in the character, safe in the knowledge that my preparations will have created the right muscle memory to satisfy the technical requirements of Donizetti’s score. I need to be at ease with the trills and complicated coloratura that he wrote: there is nothing more distracting for an audience than visibly seeing a singer prepare for a high note or make a movement who’s purpose is to facilitate a note and not an emotion. The singing must appear effortless and must always be beautiful and expressive.

At the end of the opera, I am often exhausted physically and can come offstage with bruises and cuts having no idea how I got them. When I am performing the adrenaline takes over and a lot of things I don’t feel until I come off stage or until the day afterward when I usually have trouble getting out of bed… My husband makes fun of me as the first thing I say when I wake the morning after a performance of “Lucia” is “everything hurts.”

OW: Tell me about your choice of cadenza? What do you think it brings to the scene?

JP: Like my variations, I tend to choose or write the cadenza according to the context I am performing in. I like to see the production and then decide on the cadenza depending on how I feel the character is portrayed in that particular production. I am, like many people, very fond of the traditional extended flute cadenza written for my compatriot Nellie Melba or variations on that. However, I have performed a number of different cadenzas, with various accompanying instruments, once with glass harmonica and flute together and another time with just the harp which gave me lots of freedom to improvise above the chords. It was an interesting choice of the conductor as it brought a strong reminder of the first of Lucia’s arias and of course the ghost in the fountain. When I was singing this production of Mary Zimmerman’s at La Scala in 2014, I was also jumping back and forth from another Lucia in Amsterdam with different cuts, different musical interpretation, and a very different staging. For the production in Amsterdam, I felt a different cadenza was necessary to portray the nightmarish situation we were creating there onstage whereas in this production of Mary Zimmerman’s it was requested that I sing the traditional cadenza which can be found in the Ricci book attributed to Tetrazzini and then made popular again by Maria Callas. I felt it worked well with the production so I have kept it for these performances at the Metropolitan.

OW: And what are your thoughts on the cadenza Donizetti composed originally?

JP: It is a curious thing that one of the most famous parts of this opera is a cadenza not written by Donizetti himself. While I was researching traditional cadenzas and variations from the 1800s for a production of “La Sonnambula” in Rome last month I came across a number of extended flute cadenzas for the final scene of that opera too. I find it fascinating that this once very popular tradition died out in general but somehow survived in “Lucia.” It would certainly be considered very strange to have a big flute and voice cadenza at the end of “La Sonnambula” today and yet is expected and celebrated in “Lucia di Lammermoor.” In the end, I think we have to take into consideration the public’s expectations and the performance traditions of this genre when deciding these details.

I for one am glad that this tradition survives in “Lucia.” I love this special opportunity to express her madness and elaborate on the duet that Donizetti wrote throughout the preceding mad scene with the flute or the glass harmonica. In Italy if the public insists on a bis of the cadenza and the performance cannot go on without it, I sometimes bis a different cadenza or the same one with different tempi and dynamics, a cadenza should feel like a free moment of pure expression. In September of this year, I will be recording a solo CD with bel canto expert, Maestro Fabio Luisi, and in collaboration with the Florence Opera’s Maggio Musicale Orchestra and chorus. It will showcase some of the most famous mad scenes which have been such a core part of my repertoire, like “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “I Puritani,” and a few more rare ones. It is scheduled for release in the spring of 2019.

OW: Tell me about your use of ornamentation and how do you come up with it when you’re learning a Bel Canto role like this one?

JP: My first rule is never to listen to other singers or recordings when I learn a role and to take it only from the score. This for me is second nature as a large number of the operas that I have sung are rare and are not recorded so there is not that option and it never became a habit for me as a young singer to learn an opera using CDs. When approaching the variations I work on my own, with my teacher Lella Cuberli and with my pianists to come up with ideas. At home, I have a collection of variations and cadenzas written by other singers throughout the years. One of my hobbies is going to libraries in Italy and wherever I travel to search out old vocal texts on technique and performance practices of the bel canto period. I usually choose variations from these books and mix them with my own ideas. It is easier with operas that are unknown because when you deal with a well-known bel canto opera such as “Lucia” then you also have to take into consideration traditional performance practices and the expectations of the public who may want to hear a very common variation or cadenza that is strongly associated with the work.

One pattern that reoccurs frequently in the 1800’s was the cadenza we now associate very strongly with Gilda’s aria “Caro nome” in Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” In reality, this same cadenza was used frequently in many operas of the time from “Lucia” to “La Sonnambula.” Today, however, it would seem incredibly strange to hear those notes at the end of the flute cadenza of “Lucia” for example. This is something the recording industry has created: a public that hears one singer’a version of an opera so many times they think that that is the only way to interpret the score. If onstage I have an idea and I feel like exploring it, I will add it in the moment, so long as it doesn’t disturb the music rhythmically and it fits harmonically into the chord. Obviously, a variation that requires changes in the orchestra has to be decided with plenty of anticipation and properly rehearsed.

OW: When you have performed a role like this over 80 times, how do you keep it fresh? 

JP: In Italy, where I started my career, many people come to every performance of a bel canto opera so I like to change things during the performances, not only for the audience but also to keep things alive and spontaneous for myself; this goes for the staging too. It is important to be spontaneous onstage, however, it is a spontaneity within a framework. A little bit like when we use rubato: you have to steal and give back, never changing the structure of the music but playing inside the bar lines. We must feel free onstage to express ourselves in the moment both musically and scenically otherwise we run a huge risk of becoming repetitive and performing like marionettes, not really feeling the emotions but just going though the movements in a mechanical way… phoning it in! For this reason, it is important who I am performing with. Maestro Abbado and I have performed Lucia before in Paris and in Rome and both were very different interpretations. We have collaborated often together on many other bel canto titles, especially Rossini operas where it is important to be able to compose variations that are in style with the music. That is to say that he is used to me and my changing variations and cadenzas and usually just gives me a knowing smile from the orchestra pit when I throw and extra something in every now and then!

OW: Lucia is a complex character and from the beginning, she is a bit unstable mentally. Where is she mentally and emotionally at the start of the opera and why does she go completely mad by the end?

JP: I think she is impressionable and fragile from the beginning of the opera with a fervid imagination and the various pressures put on her by her patriarchal society during the opera are too much for her to bear at which point she escapes into her vivid internal world. In the original book “The Bride of Lammermoor” by Sir Walter Scott it is Lucia’s mother who pushes the agenda and her brother is just a child. Donizetti and Salvadore Cammarano got rid of the maternal figure and replaced her with the masculine figure of an aggressive adult brother who is running the household after their mothers death. In the French version, Donizetti even takes away the role of her maid Alisa, leaving Lucia as an isolated women surrounded only by men. These men are aggressive, including Edgardo, who flies into a rage in their first duet the minute she asks him not to reveal their secret to her brother and then attacks her and humiliates her at the wedding. In the opera she is depicted as a woman alone trying to survive in a male-dominated world. I see her as a strong woman with an independent mind who wanted to make her own decisions about her destiny at a time when women were mostly treated as objects and the property of men. It is her very strength and independence that drives her to madness as she is unable to bend her will to that of the patriarchal society in which she existed and thus escapes into the only place she has left, her inner world.

OW: The scene with her brother is probably my favorite scene because it is so dramatic and it basically moves the action towards her madness. How do you prepare for this scene and what are the vocal challenges?

JP: I think that here the challenge is not to get overexcited and carried away by Donizetti’s wonderful dramatic writing. We must excite the public and not lose control. It’s a fine line between drama and loss of control which then weakens the image of the character in the eyes of the public. It is the moment that she starts to crack, however, in her mind, no matter what Edgardo has done, she is still married to him. It is only in the following scene when she is pressured by the priest and told her wedding is not valid in the eyes of God that she finally gives in and decides to sacrifice herself for her family.

OW: How does this opera compare to the other Donizetti operas you sing? Do you find that the role is heavier than most Donizetti works you perform?

JP: It doesn’t feel much heavier than the other Donizetti operas I have sung until now. In general, the roles I sing of Donizetti, including Lucia, feel much lighter for example than the more lyric Bellini operas in my repertoire like “I Puritani,” “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” and “La Sonnambula.” I think one has to keep in mind that “Lucia di Lammermoor” was written for Fanny Tacchinardi Persiani, and other roles she created were “Pia dei Tolomei” and “Rosmonda d’Inghilterra” where Donizetti wrote two high E naturals for her and it was said that she could hit a high F effortlessly. I actually find myself very much at home in the roles that were written with Tacchinardi Persiani’s voice in mind.

A few years ago, I debuted “Linda di Chamounix,” an opera in which Donizetti added the aria “O luce di quest’anima” for her during a revival in Paris. This aria is commonly transposed down however when I performed it in the original, higher tonality it really brought home to me how much facility she must have had in the upper range of her voice. At the time that these operas were composed, the performers had much more influence on the scores that were written and rewritten for the voices that were available at the moment. Donizetti himself often rewrote large sections of the operas according to the singers available at the time as the success of the shows were largely dependent on the success of the performers and the composers ability to exploit their individual skills and, of course, to hide their weaknesses. Tacchinardi Persiani, for example, often replaced “Regnava nel silenzio” with the opening aria from “Rosmonda d’Inghilterra,” “Perché non ho del vento” and Donizetti himself when he wrote the French version “Lucie de Lammermoor” took on the idea and replaced “Regnava nel silenzio” with the aria from “Rosmonda.”

We are accustomed to hearing “Lucia” performed more often than not with certain scenes transposed down a tone or half a tone. In my coming CD with maestro Luisi later this year, I am looking forward to recording the mad scene of “Lucia” in its original higher key. However, I feel comfortable in both versions and am certainly more used to performing it in the more common transposed version. While this sightly lowers the tessitura of the role, it still is not a huge change. It certainly doesn’t put it on par with an “Anna Bolena,” or even a “Maria Stuarda.”

OW: We talked about pacing in the mad scene, but this opera is actually a long sing for the leading lady. How do you manage in an opera like this, when you are singing non-stop. And do you time your high notes?

JP: I make sure that in my rehearsals I sing much more than I will sing onstage. For me, personally, it is really important to train myself daily, during rehearsals and outside of rehearsals so that when I am onstage I don’t even think about timing or technique. I just sing what I feel in the moment. Making sure that my technical work is dealt with outside of the performances means that when I go onstage I am free to concentrate only on the drama of the moment.

My father always says to me that mentally we have to put the technique in a box, lock it and leave it on a shelf when we go onstage and it will be there for us to continue to work on when we come offstage again.

As for the hight notes, it depends up to which note I am singing. I always take my scales to a tone above the highest note I will sing in any given opera. If a variation or an acuto doesn’t work more than 90 percent of the time during the rehearsal period I take it off in the performance and then reintroduce it in the next production during rehearsals. I never go onstage wondering if a note will come out… I am not that courageous!


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