The Baltimore Opera Company opens its 1993-94 season tonight with a stunning new production of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," a tragic masterpiece filled with violent emotions -- love, hate, jealousy and madness of the most intense kind. For that very reason, perhaps, the opera was virtually forgotten for many years, a relic of early Romanticism overtaken by the more palpable horrors of the present century.
"Lucia," first performed in 1835, offers the kind of perfervid melodramatic spectacle that English-speaking audiences, at least, once liked to think of as the peculiar amusement of overwrought Mediterranean sensibilities. Thus it was not until the 1950s, with the appearance of a singer blessed with the vocal and dramatic gifts to bring out the elemental power that long had lain dormant in Donizetti's score, that "Lucia" reclaimed its rightful place in the operatic repertory.
That artist, of course, was the young Maria Callas, whose performances and recordings of the work not only launched her as the greatest operatic personality of the century but rescued Donizetti's music from the historical oblivion into which it had been cast.
Callas' portrayal of the title character was executed to the highest musical standards, but that was not what distinguished her performances from all previous readings of the role. Her genius lay on another level entirely, in the projection of a dramatic persona whose utterances were informed by a neurotic anxiety that spoke directly to an era struggling to come to terms with the implications of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theories and the specter of nuclear annihilation.
Lucia's thwarted love drives her first to madness, then murder and finally suicide. Her death provokes the suicide of her paramour, Edgardo, and seals the doom of her brother, Edwardo. By the opera's end, the destruction of the house of Lammermoor is imminent, an event foreshadowed by the setting of the final scene, a graveyard in which forbidden passion and violent death are symbolically commingled.
Callas once remarked that she had no need to research a role by studying the historical period in which the character lived or its literature and art or the performance practices current at the time the work was written. She considered all such efforts a form of drudgery and a waste of time because everything that was important to know about a role was already "in the notes."
Critics at the time regarded such statements as evidence of unseemly hubris. Yet recent scholarship seems to bear out the diva's views.
In her book "Feminine Endings," for example, writer Susan McClary suggests that Donizetti quite consciously exploited the rigid conventions of operatic writing by giving his heroine music whose extravagant virtuosity precisely mirrored Lucia's deranged mental state.
"The other characters in the opera happily conform to the periodic phrases, the diatonicism, the melodic lyricism of this rather restricted sociomusical world," Ms. McClary writes. "But Lucia always has far too much energy for these narrow confines. Her excess breaks forth at all the weak moments or seams in the form -- in roulades between eight-bar phrases, in cadenzas between verses. And when the form of the piece refuses to accommodate her, she spills out in the only direction available: upward into coloratura delirium."
Whether Callas would have described her characterization in the same terms as Ms. McClary is irrelevant. What matters is that she realized Lucia and her inner self are the entire point of Donizetti's drama and that the composer had already mapped his character's mental life onto the music he gave her to sing. Lucia's exuberant singing shatters the mundane world of social convention represented in the drama, but it required the artistry of a Callas to reveal the psychological portrait of a lovesick, embittered woman that lies behind the vocal high-wire act.
It is probable that most Americans today, if they know of Callas at all, remember her as the woman Aristotle Onassis abandoned in the 1960s for Jacqueline Kennedy. Onassis' betrayal was the final blow to Callas' already troubled career. Some writers have even suggested that her death in 1976, after years of seclusion, may have borne more than a passing resemblance to Lucia's own willful demise. If that is true, it would not be the first case of an actress finally succumbing to the same unruly passions she so convincingly portrayed on stage.
Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.