From the sublime to the ridiculous Lucia’s Sextet through the years
LUCIA ’S SEXTET THROUGH THE YEARS
Gaetano Donizetti was a great tunesmith, and his Lucia di Lammermoor is practically overstuffed with memorable melodies. Lucia’s Mad Scene (“Il dolce suono”) is an evergreen for the operatically inclined, but it is only one of many numbers that music lovers may find themselves humming on the way out of the theater, along with her aria “Regnava nel silenzio,” her duet with tenor Edgardo “Verranno a te sull’aure,” Enrico’s (baritone) cabaletta “La pietade in suo favore,” the chorus “Per te d’immenso giubilo,” and Edgardo’s heartrending final scene, “Fra poco a me ricovero.” But among all these chestnuts, one number became the score’s most famous, the ensemble “Che mi frena in tal momento,” known to generations as the Sextet from Lucia.
It falls near the end of the second of the opera’s three acts. (Since Santa Fe Opera is combining the first two acts into a single span, they are calling it Act 1, Scene 4.) The action is careering toward disaster. In the great hall of Lammermoor Castle, a crowd is gathered to celebrate the wedding of Lucia, who has capitulated to her brother Enrico’s demand that she wed deep-pocketed Arturo rather than dashing Edgardo, whom she really loves and to whom she has pledged her troth, though without the church’s benediction. Lucia signs her marriage contract, and at that moment Edgardo storms in and is held back by the multitude. “Edgardo!” cries Lucia, “oh Heaven!” “Oh, terror!” exclaim the onlookers. The silence is broken only by four horns, sounding ominous. Everyone takes a deep breath.
The strings essay an accompaniment, playing pizzicato, as if they were a plucked guitar. Over this, Edgardo and Enrico sing the celebrated theme in harmony, each to his own words. “Who restrains me at this moment?” sings Edgardo, “Who disrupts the course of anger?” — and then he professes the love he still harbors for Lucia. Enrico is just as upset: “Who restrains my fury, the hand that reaches for the sword?” — but he admits that he feels remorse for the misery he has caused his sister. They sing in sweeping, symmetrical phrases, and after a bit Lucia adds her voice: “I hoped that the shock might cut short my life, but death has not come to help me.” Chaplain Raimondo and bridegroom Arturo join in (“What an awful moment!”) and finally Lucia’s companion Alisa and the guests pick up the melody (“Like a wilted rose she hangs twixt life and death”). The music unfurls, but time stands still in a grand emotional freeze frame.
It was not the first sextet to be heard on the opera stage. Memorable sextets had figured in Mozart’s
Le nozze di Figaro and in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, but in both cases those came at moments of overthe-top comic confusion. Here, wave upon wave of tragic premonition have rolled up on Scotland’s shore, and it is inconceivable that anything heartening lies ahead. From a musical standpoint, Donizetti has set himself something of an impossible task. With six characters plus a chorus singing different texts at the same time, nobody can hope to really follow the words. Although the characters voice their particular perspectives on this moment of crisis, they share the same melody. Their words set them apart, but their music brings them together. Donizetti handles the challenge by writing music that is not specific to any one of the characters’ perspectives. One might consider it emotionally neutral. That may help account for the peerless affection the Sextet would earn from the public. Although it stands as the fulcrum in a tragic opera, this ensemble sounds rich and flowing and glorious — but not tragic.
In the 20th century it entered pop culture. It figured on a number of releases at the dawn of the age of recording — by Sousa’s Band, for example, in 1901. The Victor company released two different performances of it in 1908 and 1912, and then exactly a century ago — in 1917 — it issued a reading that would become a blockbuster, with the all-star ensemble of soprano Amelita Galli-Curci, mezzo-soprano Minnie Egener, tenor Enrico Caruso, tenor Angelo Badà, baritone Giuseppe De Luca, and bass Marcel Journet. Every music lover seems to have owned a copy, and when Mario Lanza starred in the 1951 MGM movie
The Great Caruso, in 1951, of course the Sextet had to occupy a place of honor, with soprano Dorothy Kirsten doing her part as Lucia.
By that time, the Sextet had taken on a life of its own, moving to the world of comedy in spite of itself. Why, there was winsome little Shirley Temple in her satin ball gown, belting out the Sextet, arranged as a trio with her grown-up gentlemen friends Guy Kibbee and Slim Summerville (an Albuquerque native) in the 1936 spirit-raiser Captain January. In 1945, the Sextet became a soundrack for slapstick. In Micro-Phonies, The Three Stooges, working at a radio station, undertake an audition by lip-synching to a phonograph
record of the Sextet, costuming themselves as “Señor Mucho” (Moe), “Señor Gusto” (Larry), and “Señorita Cucaracha” (Curly). Things do not go well. The threesome recycled the bit in 1948 in Squareheads of the Round Table, now as medieval troubadours serenading songstress Christine McIntyre in her balcony — with the very anachronistic Sextet from Lucia.
During the 1940s, Donizetti’s Sextet entered the domain of the animated short. In Notes to You, a 1941 Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes release, Porky Pig shoots Sylvester the Cat, after which the spirits of Sylvester’s nine lives cavort on the back fence while singing the Sextet. The studio got more mileage out of the gag in Back Alley Oproar, a Merrie Melodies release from 1948. This time, Sylvester’s singing prevents Elmer Fudd from getting a night’s sleep. Elmer, having blown himself up in a TNT accident, looks forward to getting some rest in Heaven, but he is interrupted even there by a boisterous rendition of the Sextet by Sylvester’s spirits, ascending in a concluding apotheosis. The Sextet shows up again in Long-Haired Hare, a 1949 Looney Tunes cartoon featuring Bugs Bunny. In 1946, Walt Disney had the piece (arranged as a trio) serve at the climax of an installment of his Make Mine Music series, in which Willie the Operatic Whale, aspiring to perform at the Metropolitan Opera, intones the various parts simultaneously (all overdubbed by Nelson Eddy). “Willie was no ordinary singing whale. Willie could sing in three separate voices — tenor, baritone, and bass. Why, Willie was a singing miracle!”
This was not what Donizetti had in mind, but it is a compliment nonetheless when one’s work becomes a universally recognized point of reference. As the wise critic William Hazlitt wrote in his Lectures on
the English Comic Writers (1819): From the sublime to the ridiculous, there is but one step. … It is a common mistake, however, to suppose that parodies degrade, or imply a stigma on the subject; on the contrary, they in general imply something serious or sacred in the originals. … The best parodies are, accordingly, the best and most striking things reversed.” Even a puppet show — which is about the closest thing Hazlitt could have imagined to an animated cartoon — can exert something of human genius, in his opinion, and in making its points it does not detract from greater artworks that may have inspired it. “I have heard no bad judge of such matters say, that ‘he liked a comedy better than a tragedy, a farce better than a comedy, a pantomime better than a farce, but a puppet-show best of all.’ I look upon it, that he who invented puppet-shows was a greater benefactor to his species, than he who invented Operas!