Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor

Murder, madness, and a blood-spattered bride: For more than 200 years, the spine-tingling story of Lucia di Lammermoor has left audiences shivering with delight. In 1819, Sir Walter Scott published a novel about an ill-fated maid from the Lammermoor hills. Loosely based on a real-life murder that scandalized 17th-century Scotland, Scott’s novel was grisly, gory, and one of the most popular books of its day. Emotionally raw and irresistibly morbid, the story soon made its way across Europe; a Danish musical based on the novel even featured a libretto by Hans Christian Andersen! Yet it was Gaetano Donizetti and Salvadore Cammarano—two of Italy’s brightest operatic stars—who in 1835 gave Lucia her immortal voice.

In Donizetti’s hands, Lucia became a character at once tragic and terrifying, and he devised some of his most innovative and virtuosic music to portray her slide into insanity. Yet he also crafted an unforgettable story of passion, vengeance, and familial loyalty in which heartbreaking drama blends seamlessly with breathtaking vocal acrobatics. The soprano called on to perform the title role takes on a challenge akin to giving an Oscar-winning performance while flying through the air on a trapeze, and this riveting combination of chills, thrills, and powerhouse virtuosity has made Lucia di Lammermoor one of the most popular operas of all time. (In fact, in 1883, Lucia was the second work ever performed by the newly opened Metropolitan Opera, and it has remained a beloved staple of the Met’s repertoire ever since.)

Even divorced from its historical context, Lucia di Lammermoor is an operatic triumph. Yet a closer look reveals a work intricately linked to the intellectual trends of its day. Although both Scott’s novel and Cammarano’s libretto are set in the 17th century, the opera is best understood in light of the medical, technological, and musical advances that marked the 1800s. This guide thus invites students to delve into the 19th century, considering how Lucia’s experiences reflect both the scientific developments and the social structures of the day. At the same time, it asks students to view Lucia’s story through a more modern lens, drawing on their understanding of psychology, gender roles, and even urban legends to analyze, evaluate, and sympathize with this great opera and its heroine’s plight.