The Met in Motion

Archive Fever: di', non ascolti?

“A love for opera, particularly on record, is a nostalgic emotion, and gay people are imagined to be a uniquely and tragically nostalgic population--regressive, committed to dust and souvenirs. A record, a momento, a trace of an absence, suits the quintessentially gay soul, whose tastes are retro and whose sexuality demands a ceaseless work of recollection.”  
- Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queen's Throat

Wayne Koestenbaum in his beautiful personal ethnography of opera and gay culture, The Queen’s Throat, connects the importance of opera-on-record for opera culture not to consumer culture, like Evans, but to the nostalgia of gay culture. But as much as gay culture is nostalgic, since, as “queers do not usually have queer parents, queers must invent precedent and origin for their taste,” (Koestenbaum, 47) it is also performative, and the record is not the only place where traces of absence can be found. Another is the stage: opera culture is archival, but so, in fact, is opera performance. In the sometimes parallel, sometimes intersecting relationship between recorded sound and performance, an opera emerges that is archived and archival, with, often, the more successful, less commercial work of recollection happening not on youtube or on the turntable, but on the stage.

One example of this lies in the performance history of Lucia di Lammermoor, by Gaetano Donizetti. Lucia premiered on September 26, 1835, at the San Carlo, Naples, and is now one of the most performed works of the operatic canon (in the 2018-2019 season Lucia was the 20th most commonly performed opera worldwide, according to Operabase). From the late 19th century to the present day, Lucia’s titular role has become a career-defining signature for several of opera’s most iconic divas, which is perhaps the reason why Lucia has also become a work with a particularly interesting and malleable relationship to its own historicity and canonicity. In particular, I wish to examine the climactic mad scene of Lucia di Lammermoor, and its famous cadenza, as a staging ground for a kind of performative archiving.

Donizetti’s opera, loosely based on a Sir Walter Scott novel, tells the story of a young Scottish noblewoman, Lucia, who is in love with Edgardo, the nemesis of her brother, Enrico. Forced by Enrico to marry another suitor, Arturo, Lucia’s fragility turns to insanity, and, on her wedding night, driven mad by grief for her lost love, she stabs her new husband to death. Emerging from her wedding chamber, her wedding dress drenched with blood, she performs before the horrified guests a set of virtuosic, coloratura-drenched mad scene arias before herself dying. 

These double arias ("Ardon gli incensi" / "Spargi d'amaro pianto") are the showpiece of the entire opera, and the showpiece of the first aria, “Ardon gli incensi” is its cadenza. Cadenzas are pure showmanship — an unaccompanied or sparsely accompanied passage, notated with a fermata, and left open for singers to add their own vocal fireworks. If you have seen or heard a Lucia di Lammermoor, you may be able to hum an approximation of how the Lucia cadenza (sometimes called the “flute cadenza” for the solo flute it duets) goes — and if you saw Lucia at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and I saw Lucia at the Royal Opera House in London, we would probably hum more or less the same tune.

Here, a particularly blood-drenched Lisette Oropesa sings the end of “Ardon gli incensi,” accompanied not by flute but, as Donizetti originally intended, by glass harmonica. The cadenza comes at 4:45 into the video:​​​​​​

This cadenza, as Oropesa sings it, is, give or take a few specific embellishments, the way we are used to hearing it sung. Many opera-goers, even committed ones, may not ever know that the cadenza was not in fact written by Donizetti. Rather, the Lucia cadenza is an example of opera performance not as staged text but as staged musical and theatrical practice — in other words, it is a moment in which the archive is on stage.

That the cadenza was not written by Donizetti is not so shocking; cadenzas are generally unaccompanied or nearly so passages of music that come at the end of an aria or a section of an aria that are notated with a fermata and intended to be expanded by each singer to become a showcase for her particular virtuoso talents. Donizetti’s original notation, with a brief and unshowy suggested cadenza included, is this:

What is interesting about the Lucia cadenza is not that it is not Donizetti’s, but just how canonical its inclusion is, despite having no origin in Donizetti’s work, or even his lifetime — In her article “The origins of Lucia di Lammermoor’s cadenza”, Romana Margherita Pugliese describes a kind of wishful thinking on the parts of musicologists who, “have tended — wishfully — to assume that if the cadenza was not written by Donizetti himself it must have at least have originated during his lifetime,” (Pugliese, 26) despite a lack of compelling evidence that this is the case as well as a lack of comparably elaborate cadenzas contemporaneous with Donizetti. So when, where, and who does the Lucia cadenza come from, and how did it become so unimpeachably conventional?

The answer lies in two women, Nellie Melba and Mathilde Marchesi. Melba (1861-1932) was an Australian superstar soprano, Marchesi (1821-1913) a German mezzo-soprano and her singing teacher. It was Marchesi who wrote the Lucia cadenza, for Melba’s use in an 1889 production at the Opéra Garnier. The addition of the cadenza, according to Pugliese, required an additional ten weeks of rehearsal, but was a rousing success for Melba, who would go on to take Lucia as one of her signature role. By 1893, reviews were praising Melba’s execution of “the famous cadenza with flute." Over the course of her career, Nellie Melba's embellishment of Donizetti’s opera had become one of its most notable components.

Since Melba's cadenza was so famous, so striking, and so successful, other singers started adding it to their Lucias. Below, listen to a sampling of famous Lucias, beginning with Melba and spanning all the way up to the 21st Century:

These cadenzas are by no means exactly identical, but within a range of typical ornamentation and personalization these women are all undeniably singing Melba’s and Marchesi’s cadenza. As such, their mad scenes form a performance tradition spanning over a century. The score of the 1889 Paris Lucia, complete with the added leaves of paper containing the cadenza with flute, are preserved at the Bibliothèque de l’Opéra. The cadenza’s place in Lucia di Lammermoor, however, is likewise preserved by the productions that continue to use it — in replicating Melba, they are presenting an archive of her work that in a way is more accurate than her gramophone records, constrained as they are by variable play-back speeds and imprecise early recording techniques. To see a soprano sing Melba's cadenza live is to encounter not only the traditionally archiveable artefacts of text or score (the artefacts that, of course, are most likely to be archived only under the name of Donizetti or another white, male, canonical composer), but to access also the electricity and thrill of a piece of music so complex performed live — to witness an archive of her artistry but even more so of her liveness. In opera, the most successful archive is often the performance itself. 

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