Lucia is our coloratura focus for the rest of March — think of it as an operatic take on college basketball’s “March Madness.”
THE SONGBIRD: Sally Wolf was born in Ravenna, Ohio. She studied voice at Kent State and the Curtis Institute, followed by further studies with Margaret Harshaw at Indiana University. She apprenticed in Santa Fe and did well in voice competitions as her career began. She was engaged frequently with Seattle Opera and was awarded Artist of the Year in 1992, the year she sang this Lucia. Roles in Seattle included Gretel, Lucia, Baby Doe, Donna Anna, Queen of the Night, Mimi, Alice Ford, Clorinda, Elvira, Berta, Helmwige, and a Norma that I saw in 2003 — she was remarkable. She has sung Mozart often, including Donna Anna in Frankfurt, Donna Elvira with NYCO, Konstanze in Berlin and Santa Fe, the Countess in Austin, Giunia in Salzburg, and Madame Herz in a Live from Lincoln Center telecast of the “The Impressario.” But Wolf’s calling card role was Queen of the Night: she did 197 performances around the world (The Met, Covent Garden, Vienna, Salzburg, Venice, Berlin, Munich, San Francisco, Paris, Geneva, Trieste, Monte Carlo, Seattle, Washington DC, Santa Fe, Dallas, Los Angeles, Saint Louis, and at the New York City Opera, among others).
THE MUSIC: Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” has become one of the quintessential operas for a coloratura soprano — it’s one of the most widely produced bel canto operas in the world and the title character is a benchmark role for this voice type. Donizetti composed it in 1835, which was a peak of his artistic and popular success — Rossini had recently retired, Bellini had just died, and Verdi had not yet had his first premiere (“Oberto” in 1837). Based on Walter Scott’s novel, the opera premiered in Naples. The plot in a nutshell: after being tricked into marrying a man she doesn’t love, and lied to that her true love has betrayed her, Lucia loses her mind and murders the groom on her wedding night. The mentally unstable young woman appears in a bloodied gown and sings a long, complex, and haunting “mad scene” mixing delusion and grief that is a tour-de-force of bel canto vocalism and gripping tragedy. The primary section of the mad scene culminates in a long cadenza with a flute (and occasionally the glass harmonica). Donizetti allowed the original Lucia, Fanny Tacchinardi Persiani, to improvise her own cadenza (she apparently had a talent for this). The most commonly performed cadenzas for the past 100+ years are based closely on three that were written and published by Mathilde Marchesi, including one for her famous student Nellie Melba when she sang the role in Paris in 1889.