Poor Lucia: Stuck in gloomy, Gothic Scotland, betrothed to a boy from the wrong side of the moor, caught in the middle of her brother’s blood feud … it’s enough to drive a girl mad.

And it does — famously, hauntingly. In Gaetano Donizetti’s 1835 opera Lucia di Lammermoor, we see the tragic transformation of a love-struck girl into the murderous maiden of Lammermoor. This production — the fourth staging of Donizetti’s masterpiece by The Atlanta Opera — is a trip from gladness to sadness to madness in three acts.

Donizetti – who also wrote L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love) and La fille du régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment) – employed in Lucia inventive melodies and a compelling family drama. Her story is so timeless that it’s mentioned in classic novels and sampled in mob movies. It can be retold in the Victorian era and in 20th-century gangland.

In case you are not familiar with the plot of Lucia di Lammermoor, the basic story goes like this. Lucia is in love with Edgardo, the leader of the rival Ravenswood clan. Her deceitful brother, Enrico, schemes to marry her off to Arturo to restore the Lammermoor family fortune. Lucia goes mad on her wedding night, kills her new husband and dies of insanity. Edgardo, heartsick at the loss of his one true love, kills himself.

Described at times as a “chilling” and sometimes “lurid” tragedy, Lucia flows on pulses of hopefulness, foolish optimism and blind faith in true love.

Lucia is a virgin sacrifice in her family’s political schemes, much like Donizetti’s earlier heroine, Anna Bolena. And like Anna Bolena, Lucia di Lammermoor has factual roots, sort of, in that it’s loosely based on an old Scottish legend that Sir Walter Scott turned into a novel in 1819. The real-life bride of Lammermoor lived nearly a century before, but still, it’s a true story! Ripped from the headlines!

“We sympathize with her and want her to be happy,” says director Tomer Zvulun, “but as the story unfolds, we see her backed into a corner: She is used and abused by her brother, her ‘forced groom,’ the priest, society and even the memories of her dead mother.”

Lucia’s lover, Edgardo, doesn’t have much to recommend him either. Destitute and homeless, he skulks about the castle grounds, hiding out and arranging clandestine meetings with her. When he leaves Scotland on a secret French mission, the two pledge their eternal love in a tender duet (“Verranno a te sull’aure”). But fragile, naïve Lucia has ignored the red flags – ghostly visions at the fountain, and dire warnings from her BFF, Alisa.

Enrico’s treachery is dastardly and intricate. While the complexity of his plot against Edgardo is echoed in the elaborate delivery of Act II’s sextet (“Chi mi frena”), the audience soon realizes that time is running out for the heroine.

Boyfriends may come and go, but beautiful arias are eternal. Thanks to Donizetti’s bel canto writing, Lucia’s crystalline voice meanders high and low – seemingly searching and yearning – like a traveler lost among misty Scottish glens and mountains.

“Donizetti has written an opera that melds beautifully with this libretto,” says Atlanta Opera’s new music director, Arthur Fagen, who conducts this production of Lucia di Lammermoor. “We find a perfect synthesis between word and music.”

The role of Lucia has attracted sopranos such as Maria Callas, Dame Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, Natalie Dessay and Anna Netrebko. The Atlanta Opera’s performances feature Georgia Jarman, already a veteran of several Donizetti roles, as the title character. This production is her role debut.

“I am tremendously excited,” Jarman says. “It’s been topping my ‘wish list’ for as long as I can remember … I plan to do some of the traditional ornamentation as well as some of my own.”

Lucia may not be a symbol of feminist empowerment, but she’s no feckless pawn, either. “Lucia fights tooth and nail in this opera,” Jarman points out. “I have the feeling she may be one of the most powerful female characters I’ve played yet.”

As the guests make merry at the reception, with voices as light and crisp as wedding champagne, Lucia commits her sole act of defiance — slaying Arturo on their wedding night. But the dark and twisted deed isn’t her fault, not really — today, wouldn’t she plead not guilty by reason of insanity? (On the other hand, the audience may wonder what, exactly, Arturo said to her in the bedchamber.)

In this production, the famous “mad scene” (“Il dolce suono”) will be accompanied by the glass armonica, an unusual instrument that produces a smooth but spooky sound.

“It was Donizetti’s original intention to use the glass armonica [for this scene], which creates an eerie, otherworldly atmosphere perfectly in synch with Lucia’s madness,” Fagen says. “Donizetti has created music… depicting the psychological state of Lucia, in a far more profound manner than was the norm during the bel canto period.”

And still, if you close your eyes and try to forget the bloodied gown, you can still hear hope in her voice as she hallucinates a reunion with Edgardo.

Donizetti’s own life ended in episodes of dementia in 1848, popularly attributed to syphilis. He left behind more than 70 operas, various orchestral and vocal pieces, and a heroine whose legacy is innocence lost, and spread with bitter tears.

Lucia di Lammermoor plays The Atlanta Opera on Nov. 12, 15, 18 & 20, 2011.


Faith Dawson is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. This is her first article for Encore.