The Way They Were: A Close Look at Social Conventions
Students will enjoy starting the class with an open discussion of the Met performance. What did they like? What didn’t they like? Did anything surprise them? What would they like to see or hear again? What would they have done differently? This discussion will offer students an opportunity to review the notes on their My Highs & Lows sheet, as well as their thoughts about the costumes in the Met production—in short, to see themselves as Lucia di Lammermoor experts.
The story of Lucia di Lammermoor demands “a suspension of disbelief.” In this work, families have mortal enemies, and relationships between enemy families are forbidden. A family in trouble can save itself with a fortuitous marriage—and the woman in question has no say in the matter. A young man can be not only the head of the household, but the person who makes personal decisions for his siblings.
Such a social setting is not only unheard of today, but would have been exceptionally unusual in 1835, when Donizetti’s opera premiered, or in 1819, when Sir Walter Scott published the novel on which Lucia di Lammermoor is based. (Reportedly, Scott took his story from a true historical event: in 1669, a Scottish noblewoman wounded her bridegroom on their wedding night. She apparently went mad and died within a month. He recovered, remarried, and lived 13 more years.)
Director Mary Zimmerman set the drama in the Victorian period, so the staging takes place closer to the time when the opera was written than to the 1700s, when Scott’s novel is set. The look and feel of the Victorian era played a role in that decision. It is a very corseted period which exerts a kind of pressure on the female form as well as the psyche. What is it about the time and community of Lucia that pushes her toward madness? Is she crazy from the beginning or is she driven crazy by her environment and circumstances? The Victorian era supports the latter, although Lucia may be a bit unbalanced at the beginning of the opera, with the music suggesting lightheadedness or strangeness on her part.
Why would a society create such rules? The strangeness of these social conventions may be as interesting to your students as the opera’s elements of love, madness, and death. Now that they’ve seen Lucia di Lammermoor, with its tragic view of the consequences of such social rules, they might enjoy debating whether the rules by which Enrico, Lucia, and Edgardo lived are good or bad.
Divide your class into two groups to prepare a debate on the topic: “Enrico was doing the right thing for his era: pro or con?”
Students may want to research pre-modern (and specifically Victorian) codes of behavior and family relationships to prepare their arguments. Or they may simply want to use their imaginations to conjure the society in which Lucia and Enrico lived, the rules by which they lived, and the kinds of social order created by those rules. Either way, a debate about the conventions of Lucia di Lammermoor’s day and Zimmerman’s Victorian setting of this Met production can heighten their awareness of the very different social rules we live by today.