I’m playing the glass armonica part in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor for the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center (Nov 10-19, 2011)—eight performances in all.
In the opera, Lucia is in love with Edgardo but her family wants her to marry Arturo—because Edgardo is broke but Arturo has money. Edgardo goes away on business, so Lucia’s brother forges letters and generally convinces her that Edgardo has been faithless. So she reluctantly marries Arturo after all, but of course Edgardo returns from his trip just in time for the conclusion of the wedding—too late. Despondent, Lucia stabs & kills Arturo on their wedding night, goes mad and dies. Then Lucia’s brother kills Edgardo (it takes him an entire aria to die, of course) and the opera ends.
They have a faux glass armonica which they use in the ‘mad scene’ — a fun prop (the glasses are actually plastic bowls):
The glasses turn — powered by batteries. During the ‘mad scene’ it sits on the side of the stage, the glasses turning & the foot treadle going up and down by itself, adding marvelously to the general spookiness.
Meanwhile, I’m down in the pit: I’m actually under the stage, all the way in the back:
Whew, that darn Lucia gets her bloody paw prints on everything:
All in all it was an extraordinary experience, as you might well imagine. Aaron Doty, the operations & personnel manager (he manages the musicians — think ‘herding cats’) deserves a special shout out for elegantly handling my logistics and shepherding me through the whole process.
Here are excerpts from reviews in which the glass armonica and/or yours truly were mentioned:
Nov 11, 2011
Enhancing this haunting performance was the musical master-stroke of the evening, as the orchestra added a “glass armonica”** to its accompaniment. Actually scored by Donizetti himself for the opera’s initial performances, its spooky, shimmering echoes underscore the pure madness of Lucia and her hopeless situation. It’s a shame that most performances of the opera today neglect to employ it.
** Although the “glass armonica” for this production actually appears on stage, the performing instrument in the orchestra pit and is being played by soloist William Zeitler for these performances.
Nov 11, 2011
Maestro Auguin worked from the critical edition and made very few cuts. He employed the glass harmonica in the Mad Scene, which gave Ms. Coburn the opportunity to do wonderfully imaginative touches. Most notable was the cadenza of the Mad Scene, in which the eerie sounding glass harmonica replaced the traditional flute. Whoever wrote her cadenza did something really brilliant. It was completely outside the 19th century bel canto style of music. It was like a young Arnold Schoenberg had composed it. It was lush and explored new possibilities in the tonality as she searched for that final Bb. To say the very least, her performance of the Mad Scene completely brought down the house.
DC Theater Scene
Nov 12, 2011
Conductor Philippe Auguin makes wonderful music, and the orchestra, once warmed up, did well. I very much liked how Auguin let Coburn shape her mad aria. I was especially delighted that the production returned to the original score, restoring the glass armonica as accompaniment in Lucia’s mad scene. (Its unworldly sound was thought to induce hysteria.) It suitably evoked the voices echoing in Lucia’s head.
November 16, 2011
In this visual and theatrical context, the use of an armonica for the mad scene, as Donizetti intended, is the crowning touch. (It is quite rare to hear this instrument in a “Lucia” performance, live or on recording.)
This Benjamin Franklin-perfected instrument of musical glasses produces a sound so eerie and ethereal that it can’t help but reflect Lucia’s fragile mental state. Heck, people used to think the instrument itself could trigger nervous disorders. (William Zeitler is the accomplished armonica player here.)