Sunday, March 9, 2008

A "Lucia" for the ages

When Gaetano Donizetti wrote the opera "Lucia di Lammermoor," based on Sir Walter Scott's "The Bride of Lammermoor," he chose an interesting accompaniment to the title heroine's "mad" scene. At that time the glass armonica, also known as the glass harmonica, was an early forerunner to the theremin with its ethereal sounds. The glass armonica is a series of spinning bowls contained in a cabinet resembling a harpsichord that is played with the dampened fingers of the musician. To get a rough approximation of what the sound is like, try moistening your fingertip and running it ever so slightly around the rim of a fine crystal wine glass. Any glass will do; crystal just sounds better. The glass armonica was invented by Benjamin Franklin and was popular during the latter 18th and early 19th Centuries. To "play" a virtual glass armonica, go to this site: . There are two ways to play it. One is a fascimile of a glass armonica, while the other is a modern keyboard. Either way one can appreciate the ghostly sounds that emanate from this instrument and discern the degree of difficulty in playing it. Because of difficulties in staging the first production of "Lucia di Lamermoor," Donizetti rewrote the glass armonica parts and substituted the more conventional flute. It was reputed that the glass armonica player demanded more money. Whatever the reason, the opera had never been played with a glass armonica accompaniment until soprano Natalie Dessay and others suggested it be used for the Metropolitan Opera's new staging that began last October. Radio listeners of the popular Met Opera broadcasts were treated to the new production yesterday and the eerie result of Dessay's resplendent voice and the glass armonica in the third act received a well-deserved standing ovation of well over a minute. For opera enthusiasts it was an unreal moment where the original wishes of the composer who died 160 years ago were finally granted. And for those who enjoy what is highly regarded as Donizetti's greatest work, opera lovers (and the composer) were probably well-pleased. It was truly a "Lucia" for the ages.

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