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In Where Angels Fear to Tread, the sober young Englishwoman Harriet Herriton attends a provincial Italian production of Lucia di Lammermoor, and she is made so indignant by the open display of emotion, both onstage and off, that she stands up and reproaches her brother, who is accompanying her, “Call this classical! It’s not even respectable! Philip! take me out at once” (Forster 187). Unbeknownst to Harriet, classical is precisely what this opera has not been called.

Since its première at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1835, Lucia has been regarded as the epitome of Romantic opera, and the mad scene in act 3, a showcase for the virtuoso coloratura of Fanny Persiani and subsequent sopranos, as one of its most characteristically Romantic elements. Thus William Ashbrook, author of the most comprehensive English-language survey of Donizetti’s operas, stamps his imprimatur on the critical tradition when he describes Lucia in a Grove Dictionary article as “the apogee of high Romantic sensibility” (“Lucia” 370).[1] And Carl Dahlhaus, in his survey of nineteenth-century music, identifies the mad scene as musicologically Romantic in its use of arioso form, which blurs the distinction between recitative and aria to create “a ‘large-scale form’ in which the monumental tendencies of the age, apparent in broad outline, are balanced and held in check by a convoluted, almost ‘symphonic’ logic in its internal harmonic and rhythmic structure”—a development that culminates in the Szene of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk (122–23). But I want to focus on the libretto of Lucia for the purpose of blurring another distinction, that between Romanticism and Enlightenment. Specifically, I shall argue, perversely perhaps but not without reason, that the presiding spirit behind the opera is none other than John Locke.

It used to be asserted frequently that Lucia was heavily indebted to Bellini’s I puritani, which also contains a celebrated mad scene, Qui la voce sua soave. But aside from the fact that the mad scenes are only superficially similar in the two operas—Elvira, after all, recovers her sanity when she is eventually reunited with her beloved Arturo—it is scarcely plausible that Donizetti and his librettist Salvadore Cammarano would have been familiar with no other representation of madness than that in I puritani. Bellini’s interest was by no means exceptional, for a concern with madness manifested itself throughout the art of the Romantic period, from the writings of Hoffmann, De Quincey, and Nodier to the drawings of Rowlandson, Géricault, and Goya. Indeed some commentators, like Theodore Ziolkowski (153–217, esp. 202–6), have labelled that historically distinctive fascination an obsession, implying that the interest in madness itself became a form of madness, much as, for Shelley’s Prometheus, hope becomes the thing it contemplates.[2]

The danger for the Romanticist looking back at the Romantics is all too clear. It is the same danger that the self-described opera queen Wayne Koestenbaum falls victim to when he listens to Maria Callas singing the mad scene: “Now I am in Lucia’s position,” he fancies (226). Yet I hope to avoid that danger by defining my subject not as Lucia’s madness itself, but as the concept of reality that the representation of her madness presupposes. I shall approach this subject by way of the contrasts between Cammarano’s libretto and its inspiration, Scott’s novel. It is more appropriate to speak of the novel as an inspiration than as the source of the opera because there were three earlier operatic adaptations of The Bride of Lammermoor through which the novel may have been mediated to Cammarano: Le Nozze di Lammermoor by Michele Carafa and Giuseppe Balocchi (1829), La Fidanzata di Lammermoor by Luigi Rieschi and Calisto Bassi (1831), and La Fidanzata di Lammermoor by Alberto Mazzucato and Pietro Beltrame (1834). But the transmission of the text and the process of its adaptation are not relevant for my purpose.

In Where Angels Fear to Tread, Harriet Herriton has trouble understanding what’s going on: “Harriet, like M. Bovary on a more famous occasion, was trying to follow the plot. Occasionally she nudged her companions, and asked them what had become of Walter Scott” (185). Her question is not unreasonable. Jerome Mitchell and Herbert Lindenberger, among others, have analyzed the differences between The Bride of Lammermoor and Lucia di Lammermoor in detail, and both conclude that Cammarano realized the dramatic potential of material that is present but not fully exploited in the novel, notably the exchange of vows between Ravenswood and Lucy at the haunted fountain, the confrontation between Ravenswood and the signers of Lucy’s marriage contract with Bucklaw, and Lucy’s “wild paroxysm of insanity” after the discovery of the fact that she has stabbed Bucklaw (Scott 337). While Mitchell is content to hint that Donizetti and Cammarano, by concentrating on the love of Lucy Ashton and Edgar Ravenswood, made better use of Scott’s plot than the novelist himself had, Lindenberger argues that Scott was constrained by his “novelistic self-consciousness,” which is to say his understanding of the conventions and limitations of the novel as a literary genre: “It is as though Scott . . . recognizes the novel up against its limits—as though extreme passion cannot be rendered in literary terms without a rational explanation” (Mitchell 144; Lindenberger 164–65). Passion is opposed to reason, and at its most extreme, in madness, it defies rational explanation altogether: as (in a different context and medium) Mr. Spock reminds Captain Kirk, “madness has no purpose or reason” (Star Trek). For Spock and Sir Walter Scott, who share the habit of explaining far more than needs to be explained in any given circumstance, madness, as the absence of reason, must be passed over in silence, although in Scott’s case it is a fairly loquacious silence, as he insists repeatedly on the inexpressibility of the horror of Bucklaw’s stabbing. Not only does the scene itself “surpass description,” but more importantly the perpetrator is silent. She “gibbers” and gestures, but cannot speak coherently: “Convulsion followed convulsion, till they closed in death, without her being able to utter a word explanatory of the fatal scene” (338–39). And in her silence her intended victim colludes with her, declaring decisively that he has “neither story to tell, nor injuries to avenge” (339).

Thomas Mann distinguishes between the language of literature and “that other, perhaps more fervent but strangely inarticulate language, the one of tones [jene andere, vielleicht innigere, aber wundersam unartikulierte Sprache, diejenige der Töne]” (16). But this distinction does not apply well to opera, in which the two languages are joined, and certainly not to Lucia di Lammermoor, one of whose achievements is to give madness—or that with which the language of literature is incommensurate—an articulate voice as well as a perspicuous body. Catherine Clément observes of Donizetti’s Lucia and Bellini’s Elvira, the two operatic madwomen drawn from Scott’s novels, that “while their coloratura passages frolic in the intoxicated happiness of song, their words are still there, along with their sense, which they have not lost” (88). Not only have they not lost their sense, but they have, in a manner, gained it. Yet in order to make sense of an excess of sensibility, opera must reverse the perspective from which madness is presented—from that of the objective narrator to that of the subjective, and subject, character. This reversal of perspective in turn entails a different concept of reality from that in Scott’s fiction.

What Herbert Lindenberger calls the “higher narrative” of The Bride of Lammermoor is the story of characters whose conflict and demise is determined by forces beyond the control of any one of them. Those forces fall into either of two categories: the historical (specifically, economic, political, familial, and sexual) on the one hand and the supernatural on the other. The rationalist account follows from the detailed (if chronologically confused) contextualization of the higher narrative, while the superstitious account follows from the legends and predictions dutifully recorded by the sceptical narrator as part of the lower narrative, which involves such characters as Ravenswood’s servant Caleb, the blind tenant Alice, and the malevolent nurse Dame Gourlay. The narrator disavows the operation of any supernatural forces upon the characters, but references to them recur so insistently and at such obviously significant moments in the story that their cumulative effect is to undermine the insistence on the sole validity of the rationalist explanation.

Thus in chapter 2 Ravenswood is reported to have “evoked some evil fiend, under whose malignant influence the future tissue of incidents was woven” (35); in chapters 5 and 20 Lucy is explicitly identified with the fountain-haunted Naiad whose love for an earlier laird of Ravenswood proved fatal (59, 205); in chapter 17 Ravenswood’s old vow to avenge the loss of his estate is said to have “been heard and registered in the book of fate” (181), notwithstanding his increasing affection for Lucy; in the following chapter Caleb recites a quatrain that prophesies the disappearance of the Master of Ravenswood in quicksand when he “woos a dead maid to be his bride” (185), a prophecy that is reinforced by the warnings of Alice, a blind seer from the epic tradition, and by the mysterious replacement of Sir William Ashton’s portrait with Sir Malise Ravenswood’s (notice that his very name is made ominous, Scott not being content to leave more than enough alone). By chapter 23, when Ravenswood sees someone by the fountain whom he takes to be first Lucy and then a ghostly Alice, the narrator himself begins to falter in his adherence to a rationalist explanation of events: “But the apparition, whether it was real, or whether it was the creation of a heated and agitated imagination, returned not again; and [Ravenswood] found his horse sweating and terrified, as if experiencing that agony of fear, with which the presence of a supernatural being is supposed to agitate the brute creation” (246). Following his confrontation with Bucklaw and the Ashton’s—the scene that was transformed into the famous sextet of the opera—Ravenswood departs “with the speed of a demon dismissed by the exorcist” (329); following her stabbing of Bucklaw, Lucy displays “the frantic gestures of an exulting demoniac” (338). Finally, when Ravenswood disappears into the quicksand, in conformity with Caleb’s prediction, Colonel Ashton reacts “as if he had witnessed an apparition” (347).

By repeatedly invoking the supernatural, Scott removes it from the realm of pure subjectivity and imparts to it a kind of plausibility. We must at least entertain the possibility that the naturalistic plot is propelled towards its ghastly conclusion by supernatural forces, for we cannot dismiss them as the figments of a single character’s imagination, especially in the face of the narrator’s own scepticism.[3] That such supernatural forces might operate in the narrative implies the bifurcation of reality into visible and invisible realms, natural and supernatural, the former experienced directly and the latter discerned through its effects on the former. In spite of himself, Scott’s narrator reveals that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in philosophy. From that point of view, Lucy may be understood as demonic in the original sense of the term: that is, as possessed and controlled by a spirit. She cannot speak in her madness because that madness is not in fact hers, which is to say, not an expression of her subjectivity. In accordance with the novel’s hierarchical—one might say vertical—conception of reality, reason and passions, as properties of the individual, may speak, but fate and madness, as operations of the unseen realm, neither speak nor hide but, as Heraclitus said of the Delphic oracle, give out signs.

On stage, whatever else Lucia may do, she cannot remain silent. Her madness discloses itself not only in language but as her very voice, as if to demonstrate Foucault’s assertion that “language is the first and last structure of madness, its constituent form” (255). Since operatic conventions entail lesser demands for development of character but greater demands for display of character than do novelistic conventions, the librettist’s concern with identifying the causes of the protagonist’s madness, whether natural or supernatural, malevolent mother or wicked witch, is decidedly subordinate to his concern with establishing its form and content.[4] What will Lucia say? Her words must be at once comprehensible in themselves—she loves Edgardo—and recognizable as a manifestation of madness—she marries Arturo in reality and Edgardo only in her imagination.

If madness is to be articulate, it must resemble sanity. It must employ the forms of rational discourse, even though it does so towards irrational ends. The operatic presentation of madness thus conforms to Locke’s definition of it as reasoning rightly from false premisses: “mad Men,” he writes in book 2 of An Essay concerning Human Understanding, “do not appear to me to have lost the Faculty of Reasoning: but having joined together some Ideas very wrongly, they mistake them for Truths; and they err as Men do, that argue right from wrong Principles. For by the violence of their Imaginations, having taken their Fancies for Realities, they make right deductions from them. Thus you shall find a distracted Man fancying himself a King, with a right inference, require suitable Attendance, Respect, and Obedience” (161). This definition of madness follows from Locke’s conception of reality as bifurcated in what may be called a horizontal direction: between what is outside the mind and what is inside it. When the mind is functioning properly, these worlds correspond to each other; in madness, they are divergent. Accounting for the form that madness assumes but not for its cause, Locke’s empirical psychology is as suitable to Cammarano’s needs as a librettist as it is unsuitable to Scott’s needs as a novelist.

The madness of Lucia di Lammermoor, therefore, consists in her creation of a subjective reality (her wedding to Edgardo) that is consistent in itself—and more particularly, consistent with her desire—but not with the events enacted on stage (the signing of the marriage contract with Arturo) or reported by Raimondo to the horrified wedding guests (the murder of Arturo). Donizetti for his part (for I have not forgotten that he too had something to do with the opera) ingeniously reinforces the conflict of these two worlds, subjective and objective, musically, in ways that William Ashbrook has analyzed (Donizetti 397–98). When Lucia enters the hall of the wedding feast in her blood-stained white gown, the flute (or glass harmonica, the instrument for which Donizetti originally wrote the part) plays a distorted version of the melody of Regnava nel silenzio, with which Lucia reported to Alisa her frightening vision at the fountain in act 1, scene 2. Then the descending motif with which the cellos announced Lucia’s reluctant entrance into Enrico’s room to sign the marriage contract, in act 2, scene 2, returns, slightly altered, in the recitative of her mad-scene to serve as the wedding hymn in her imagined marriage to Edgardo, as she sings that she is his again, having escaped his enemies: “Io ti son resa; / Edgardo! . . . / Fuggita io son da’ tuoi nemici.” They must be married because a spectre—the world outside her mind—divides them: “Il fantasma, il fantasma ne separa.” The complete triumph of Lucia’s inner world is signalled when she quotes—without distortion—the melody of Verrano a te from act 1, scene 2, the duet in which she and Edgardo had exchanged vows and rings: “Verrano a te sull’aure / I miei sospiri ardenti.” In translation: “You will hear my sighs, wafted upon the breeze. You’ll hear in the murmuring sea the echoes of my sorrowing. And when you think of my grief, how sad and alone I am, then shed, now and then, a tear on this token of our love!”

Returning to and concluding with the mad-scene, we note the flute obbligato echoing Lucia’s voice, racing with her, as if taunting her and reminding us that she will be united with Edgardo only in death. For that is a reality, a singular one, to which neither Lucia di Lammermoor’s horizontal concept of reality nor The Bride of Lammermoor’s vertical concept can give a voice: the rest—Lucia's, Callas's, and ours—which is, as Hamlet might have reminded us, truly silence.