From its premiere in Naples in 1835, Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" has been identified by two immortal excerpts: the energetic sextet that highlights the second act, and the heroine's extended mad scene in Act 3. The "Mad Scene from Lucia" quickly became a litmus test for every coloratura soprano -- the bird-light voice type that can negotiate fast, high passage-work, often in tandem with a flute.
Mad scenes appeared in spoken drama and opera long before Donizetti made this one his defining moment. Ophelia in Shakespeare's "Hamlet" (and a later French opera by Ambroise Thomas), Handel's "Orlando," Elettra in Mozart's "Idomeneo" all go mad quite elaborately on stage. But mad scenes had their heyday in early 19th-century Italian opera, the age of bel canto in which the music was designed to showcase the singers' virtuosity -- often at the expense of credible drama.
Donizetti and his contemporaries Rossini and Bellini were the chief exponents of bel canto, and their arias typically took the form of a slow cavatina (a lyrical melody over a broken-chord accompaniment) followed by a fast and flashy caballetta, vocal fireworks in a dance rhythm, exploiting the singer's highest register.
"Lucia di Lammermoor" contains opera's most famous mad scene, but Donizetti's "Anna Bolena," Rossini's "Armida" and Bellini's "Il pirata" each end with one. Arguably the most beautiful of them all is in Bellini's "I puritani" -- uncharacteristically, in Act 2, the heroine Elvira goes mad when she believes her lover to be unfaithful, then regains her sanity when she finds that he loves her after all. Wallace Brockway and Herbert Weinstock, in their delightful history, "The World of Opera," explain that "various composers of the 19th century, faced with the task of pleasing a star soprano, artificially used a 'mad scene' as an excuse for allowing her to sing acres of fioriture that only an insane woman would think of singing, but that no insane woman would have the control to sing."
Another writer on opera, Paul England, put it even more succinctly: "The heroine now wanders on to the scene to show us that, whatever the state of her mind may be, she has her voice under perfect control."
Although mad scenes were long associated with light voices -- notably Lily Pons and Roberta Peters in the early and mid-20th century -- two great singers appeared in the 1950s and '60s to change that. Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland had fuller, more colorful voices, and used the fioriture for expressive purposes rather than empty display, setting new criteria for these roles. Today, Natalie Dessay exemplifies the lighter-voiced protagonist, Anna Netrebko the fuller sound.
In 1960, composer Benjamin Britten went so far, in his "Midsummer Night's Dream," to write a parody of Ms. Sutherland singing a mad scene, for tenor Peter Pears: Thisby's "Asleep, my love," in the play-within-a-play segment. Peter Maxwell Davis' "Eight Songs for a Mad King," composed in 1968, is a song cycle to be acted out -- essentially a one-man opera consisting of a 30-minute mad scene for baritone.
Robert Croan is a senior editor for the Post-Gazette.