From the Archives: Lucia di Lammermoor at the Met
By Peter Clark
Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor has rarely been out the Metropolitan Opera repertory in the company’s 137-year history. With 611 performances to date, Lucia outranks all other Italian bel canto operas in popularity except for Rossini’s comedy Il Barbiere di Siviglia, which has been given 632 times.
In the first half-century of Met history, Lucia was the inevitable calling card of the most renowned coloratura sopranos of the day—and it was an era with a steady stream of brilliant virtuoso singers. Marcella Sembrich (pictured above) sang Lucia on the second night of the Met’s 1883 opening season, repeating it ten more times to great acclaim. Following a brief period of nine seasons in which a German troupe performed at the Met, Lucia returned in 1892 for a single performance with one of the iconic songbirds of the 19th century, Adelina Patti. The next year, another legendary soprano, Nellie Melba (pictured below), made her Met debut as Lucia, a role which would practically be her personal property for the next decade. Lucia was so closely associated with Melba that she would often add the character’s famous mad scene as an encore at performances of other operas she was singing. The first Met performances of La Bohème, in November 1900, featured Melba as Mimì, and once Puccini’s tragedy was over, the great soprano, perhaps thinking her audience had not gotten its just desserts, would come out and sing the Lucia mad scene. On tour once in Chicago, when the tenor in Tannhäuser fell ill and couldn’t finish the final act, Melba, the evening’s Elisabeth, compensated the audience by having a piano wheeled out so she could sing the mad scene.
That Melba was first and foremost a vocal, rather than dramatic, sensation, is evident from a review by W. J. Henderson, one of the eminent critics of the day. “Mme. Melba was in excellent voice last night, and consequently she was heard to the best advantage. It would be easy enough for a genuine actress to make the rôle of Lucia theatrically effective in spite of the hollowness of the pretty music, but no one ever does act it, and consequently the public has come to accept it as a part in which the unaided exhibition of vocal technics is the whole issue. This is a good attitude for Mme. Melba, for she never acts, even when she thinks she does. But she sings admirably, and last night her work was up to its best mark.”
After Melba’s reign as Lucia, Sembrich returned, often with Enrico Caruso as her Edgardo. The tenor hero was often cast with a heavier voice than it is today, with singers like Francesco Tamagno, Verdi’s first Otello, and Francesco Vignas and Andreas Dippel, both Wagnerians, taking the part at the Met. One reason may have been that Lucia was often heavily cut, and would sometimes end after the mad scene, eliminating Edgardo’s lyrical final scene. As a truncated Lucia made for a rather short evening, the program was sometimes supplemented by a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana or Pagliacci, or some other short piece. Giuseppe Cremonini, one of Melba’s partners, sang both Edgardo and Turiddu in Cavalleria in the same evening. Edgardo’s final scene was included in Caruso’s performances, but it wasn’t until Beniamino Gigli sang the role in the 1920s that the part was regularly attributed to a lyric tenor.
In 1911, the phenomenal Italian coloratura Luisa Tetrazzini made her Met debut as Lucia. Her career with the company was short, and she was succeeded in the role by noted sopranos Frieda Hempel in 1913 and Maria Barrientos in 1916. One of the most sensational singers of the century took over the part in 1921: the legendary Italian Amelita Galli-Curci (pictured above). Widely popular in part due to her best-selling records, Galli-Curci was particularly renowned for her remarkably beautiful vocal timbre. Musical America’s critic wrote: “Mme. Galli-Curci’s lovely voice was of velvety sheen in the music of the unhappy bride and there was much winsomeness in her picturization of Donizetti’s heroine. The ‘Mad Scene’ has been sung more brilliantly, but not in recent memory have some of the earlier melodies come to the ear with such suave beauty of tone.”
Though she remained the most prominent Lucia through the 1920s, Galli-Curci sang less well as time went on, probably due to a thyroid goiter that eventually required surgery. In 1924, another Italian, Toti Dal Monte, made her Met debut as Lucia, and although she was highly regarded for the part in her native land, her success in New York was limited.
Then came, in 1931, came the soprano who would dominate the role of Lucia for the next 25 years. French soprano Lily Pons (pictured above) was petite, pretty, and had an extraordinary upper register. She regularly interpolated Fs above high C, and even higher notes, into her performances. Though she was less of a virtuoso technician than her predecessors, she had plenty of charm, and audiences loved her. New York Times critic Olin Downes wrote, “Miss Pons is not, and will not be, a Patti or a Tetrazzini. Her voice has range and freshness when it is heard at its full value, and not marred by faulty breath-support or vibrato. Certain passages yesterday were sung with marked tonal beauty and emotional color. In the ‘mad scene’ some of the bravura passages were tossed off with a hint of the virtuoso spirit that this thinly glazed music demands. In other places the singer was not so fortunate.”
Pons’s long reign in Lucia at the Met ended with a complete change in how the opera was viewed. Maria Callas (pictured above) sang only six performances of the part at the Met in 1956 and 1958, but her intense acting, musicality, and attention to text made for a powerful theatrical experience. No longer could Lucia be considered a bit of outdated fluff staged to show off the prima donna’s virtuosity. The central figure had to be recognized as a tragic heroine of real emotional depth. Henderson’s observations about the dramatic possibilities of the role were finally justified.
Taking Lucia seriously became the prevailing attitude of singers, conductors, and directors. It showed even when one more brilliant virtuoso, Joan Sutherland (pictured above and at the top of this page), made her Met debut in the part in 1961. Though she was by no means an actress in the mold of Callas, she had carefully worked on her portrayal with director Franco Zeffirelli in London. And not since the days of Melba and Sembrich had New York heard this kind of dazzling vocalism in Lucia. Critic Irving Kolodin said, “Joan Sutherland came, sang, and conquered the Metropolitan Opera House in her awaited debut as Lucia … this is a voice consistent in timbre through two octaves (E flat to E flat in this part) with scarcely a break—full, ringing, and clear at the top, solid in the middle, viola-mellow at the bottom.”
Twenty years after her Met debut, Sutherland sang Lucia again in the company’s first telecast of the opera. Approaching the age of 60, the Australian diva could still astound audiences, and along with the stylistically elegant Edgardo of Alfredo Kraus, the pair provided a glimpse of what gives Lucia di Lammermoor the popular appeal it has always enjoyed at the Met.
Peter Clark is the Met’s Director of Archives