The 19th century created no greater monument to itself than the famous Sextette from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. To me it has always seemed like a Grand Machine, each voice, each instrument serves as a component moving part, ticking and winding its way to not one, but two Grand Climaxes (with cymbals). Indoor plumbing and the telephone are essential to me, and I'm awfully grateful for things like quinine and rail travel, but when I think of the grandeur of a century, the Sextette wins every time - even over my beloved Aida.
The plot is really Romeo and Juliet in kilts with a bit of Advise and Consent and The Manchurian Candidate. (Here's the official synopsis. Here's the libretto for the whole blessed thing, too.) Lucia Ashton and Sir Edgardo di Ravenswood, coming from rival Scottish clans, of course fall in love and get secretly married. Lucia's politically ambitious brother Lord Enrico Ashton unknowingly tosses a monkey wrench into this novel plan by betrothing Lucia to his political patron Lord Arturo Bucklaw. (I adore these Italo-Scottish name mashups.) Whoopsie-doo! Lucia, in fear and trembling, has just signed the marriage license ("La mia condanna ho scritta!" which means "I have just signed my own death warrant!") when there is a bit of a commotion at the door, and who do you think flings himself into the great hall wearing a big badass cape but (you guessed it!) Edgardo. And Lucia sings "Edgardo, o fulmine!" which essentially means "Edgardo! Oh sh*t!" The chorus mumbles his name a couple times, and then with the plucking of strings we wind up the Grand Machine that is the Sextette and get down to business.
The six singers - Edgardo, Enrico, Arturo, Lucia, Alisa (her maid), and Raimondo (her chaplain [every debutante needs one]) - sing their thoughts to themselves without interacting with each other. I have often wondered if Eugene O'Neill was inspired by this to create his (interminable) play Strange Interlude. "Chi mi frena in tal momento?" leads off Edgardo ("Who restrains me in this moment?), with Enrico countering him. Then Lucia and Raimondo contribute their layers of emotion, and at last Arturo and Alisa (who, it turns out, are just glorified chorus members for this - who knew?) and the chorus get going, and they all just Bring It Home.
After Lucia sings "M'abbandona il pianto ancor," everybody piles on*, but the most, the very most important thing is keeping the tempo slow and measured and not rush it. I see all the wheels turning, all the springs tightening, each sonorous of layer of controlled anxiety, of escaping hysteria, moving us inexorably closer to that first climactic crash of cymbals, and then the second. And then that last, magnificent pinnacle of Lucia's despair that brings it to a close. And may I say, who the hell knows what they're singing at this point, and does it matter? "Sometimes," as William Hurt famously said in The Big Chill, "you just have to let Art wash over you."
I've always especially identified two singers with the Sextette: Enrico Caruso and Maria Callas. Edgardo was one of the Great Caruso's greatest roles, and he made a famous recording of it with other great artists that was the Most Expensive Recording of Its Day; it became known as the "Seven-Dollar Sextet." Just listen to them all honking away; methinks the style was a bit more nasal back then.
Callas was my first Lucia. In college I got a double cassette recording (remember cassettes?) of the entire opera, and I'm sure I nearly broke it repeatedly rewinding to the start of the Sextette. To me she remains unparalleled in the role. (Nothing personal, Anna Netrebko, I promise.) What pathos, what drama, what perfection! In this recording she's singing it live in Berlin in 1955 under the baton of von Karajan, and he made them all encore it because the audience was so excited. Can you imagine being in the theatre on a night like that?
There's little opportunity for humor in Lucia, but Hollywood found a way. In The Great Caruso, Caruso (played by Mario Lanza) is singing the role of Edgardo while waiting anxiously to hear about the birth of his first child. As soon as he knows, the whispered news is conveyed through the entire Metropolitan Opera, and the Sextette ends with a stupendous ovation from audience and cast alike for the new father.
In a concert program, I would so very much love to see the Sextette begin with "La mia condanna ho scritta" rather than "Chi mi frena in tal momento," so that the drama of Edgardo's entrance can be captured.
*"And the free for all at the end," as Anna Russell might say, except that the Sextette proceeds at too stately a pace to be called a free for all.