On 26 September 1835 (note today’s date), Donizetti’s tragic masterpiece Lucia di Lammermoor premiered at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, Italy.
Much of this opera’s enduring popularity rests on the climax of its third act, the so-called “Mad Scene,” in which the heroine Lucia, who has been coerced into an arranged marriage, kills her new husband on their wedding night, and reenters the accompanying celebratory festivities disoriented, and covered in blood.
Singing the title role in the work’s premiere was Italian soprano Fanny Tacchinardi Persiani (1812-1867).
Strenna Teatrale Europea, Vol. 3 No. 1 (1840): [1p] 81/82.
Tacchinardi Persiani received much attention in the musical press for her creation of the role of Lucia. Tracking the reception of her performances in the work’s premiere in Venice at the Teatro Apollo, in Paris at the Théâtre-Italien, and in London’s Her Majesty’s Theater, reveals some interesting inconsistencies and difficulties she confronted in some performances.
In fact, as reported in an extensive review of the 1837 Venice premiere, the soprano apparently encountered stress-related struggles, or possibly stage-fright, that led to the critic to describe her performance as nerve-wracking.
Another understandable insult to fortune was the presence in Tachinardi’s spirit of an uncontrollable nervousness…[This was] produced by her concern about the great task of meriting the reputation that she, in her modesty, has depicted as exaggerated.
Censore Universale dei teatri, Vol. 9 No. 2 (7 January 1837): 7.
Also in the Venice premiere review, one reads that Tacchinardi Persiani’s Mad Scene “did not rise to the level of her reputation” (non si alzò al livello della sua rinomanza nell’aria), but, as the reviewer continues with comments concerning subsequent performances, the singer appears to have improved dramatically.
…that aria which she had [previously] performed ineffectively, [now] struck the audience with such surprise that they were constrained to applaud the cabaletta most enthusiastically, and [gave] its repetition a most resounding reception, and then demanded that she take a curtain call. To such an extent has she risen in the public’s esteem.
In December 1837, Tacchinardi Persiani premiered the role of Lucia in Paris at the Théâtre-Italien. There, a London correspondent from The Musical World also notes that, as in Venice, she initially suffered from an indisposition. However, also as in Venice, she apparently recovered, and her subsequent performances were more than acclaimed.
The Musical World, Vol. 7 No. 93 (22 December 1837): 232.
By the time Lucia di Lammermoor made its way to London, premiering in April 1838, Tacchinardi Persiani had firmly established herself in the role. This time, in a report entitled, “A Galaxy of Talent,” a New York correspondent for the The Musical Review reported from London on her stellar performances at Her Majesty’s Theater:
The Musical Review and Record of Musical Science, Literature, and Intelligence, Vol. 1 No. 5 (6 June 1838): 60.
There are of course no recordings of Fanny Tacchinardi Persiani’s performance, but the longstanding popularity of Lucia di Lammermoor has obviously led to numerous recordings of prominent sopranos past and present taking on the role. How about listening to forty-nine of them singing the high Eb (its only thirty-six minutes long…) in the famous aria from the Mad Scene, “Spargi D’amaro Pianto”? Which do you prefer?
If one were to judge Fanny Tacchinardi Persiani from reviews of her first Venetian and Parisian performances, one would gain a less than a favorable impression. However, reading accounts of subsequent performances clearly alter an appreciation of her talents.
The moral of the story: do not necessarily limit your perception of a singer’s talents to reviews of premieres. Where can you find others? In RIPM, of course!
RIPM search tip: For more on Lucia di Lammermoor, access RIPM’s Combined Interface and keyword search “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
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RIPM is an international non-profit organization preserving and providing access to music periodicals published in more than twenty countries between approximately 1760 and 1966, from Bach to Bernstein. Functioning under the auspices of the International Musicological Society, and the International Association of Music Libraries, Archives, and Documentation Centres, RIPM produces four electronic publications: Retrospective Index to Music Periodicals, Retrospective Index to Music Periodicals with Full Text, RIPM European and North American Music Periodicals (Preservation Series), and RIPM Jazz Periodicals (Preservation Series, forthcoming).