From the sub­lime to the ridicu­lous Lu­cia’s Sex­tet through the years


Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - James M. Keller

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!

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