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Opera notes: "Chorus of the Wedding Guests"

The “Chorus of the Wedding Guests” is a wonderful, nuanced musical moment from Gaetano Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Composed in 1835, this is a tragic opera in three acts, based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor.


The Bride of Lammermoor is a historical novel set in 1707, in the Lammermuir Hills, near the southern border of eastern Scotland. Based on an actual event, it’s the tragic love story of Lucy Ashton and Edgar, Master (the Scots term for “heir”) of Ravenswood. Because the Ravenswood family supported the deposed king James VII, they were stripped of lands and title. Sir William Ashton, Lucy’s father, purchased the Ravenswood estate. Edgar hates him for this, but when he meets Lucy, he falls in love and turns away from thoughts of vengeance.


Edgar leaves for France to work on behalf of the Jacobite cause. In his absence, Lady Ashton plots to end the betrothal and force her daughter into a more politically suitable marriage. After a series of lies and machinations, Lucy is forced to wed Francis, Laird of Bucklaw. Edgar returns the day before the wedding, but when he sees that Lucy has signed the betrothal papers, he turns against her. Lucy is not just heartbroken, but broken.


The next day, the wedding guests gather after the ceremony for dancing and celebration. The wedded couple retire to their bedchamber, where Lucy stabs Bucklaw, severely wounding him. She falls into madness and dies. Bucklaw recovers, but refuses to tell anyone that his wife stabbed him. At Lucy’s funeral, her older brother blames Edgar for her death and challenges him to a duel. Edgar agrees, but on the way to the dueling ground, he falls into quicksand and dies.


All in all, a fairly typical Scottish love story.

Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, one of several musical works based on Scott’s novel, follows the plot, albeit at a safe distance. In Act 1, Enrico, Lucia’s brother, searches for Edgardo of Ravenswood, swearing to end the man’s relationship with Lucia. Meanwhile, Lucia tells her maid that she saw the ghost of a girl killed by a Ravenswood ancestor. The maid warns Lucia that this is a bad omen and urges her to give up Edgardo. Lucia refuses, of course. Before Edgardo leaves for France, they exchange rings and swear to wed.


Act 2 jumps right to the wedding preparations for the union of Lucia to Arturo. In this retelling, it’s Enrico, the brother, who supplies forged letters and other pressures. Just after Lucia reluctantly signs the wedding contract, Edgardo appears. He sees the contract, curses Lucia, and demands his ring back.


Act 3 adds some dramatic flair to Sir Walter’s original tale. Enrico challenges Edgardo to a duel, to be fought in a nearby graveyard, and tells him that Lucia is already enjoying her marriage bed. Meanwhile, the wedding celebration is in full swing, only to be interrupted by the news that Lucy has gone mad and killed her husband. Back at the graveyard, Edgard, who has heard that Lucia is dying, decides to throw himself on Enrico’s sword. When he receives word that she has already died, he stabs himself with his dagger, hoping to be reunited with Lucia in heaven.

Despite the tragic ending, it's important to keep in mind that “The Chorus of the Wedding Guests” is sung by people who, to the best of their knowledge, are celebrating a happy occasion. Their joyful mood is genuine and heartfelt, and the choir’s performance is fully immersed in that mindset.  Only the bride’s family—and the audience—know of her inner turmoil.


Even in moments of celebration, opera often weaves complex emotions and foreshadows the tragedy to come. The “Chorus of the Wedding Guests” beautifully captures this duality.



"Diva Dance" from the movie The Fifth Element begins with a recitative and area from this opera. "Il dolce suono" ("The Sweet Sound") comes from Act III Scene 2.

This excerpt is part of Lucia's famous "mad scene." Donizetti intended for this aria to be accompanied by glass harmonica, an 18th century instrument composed of hand-blown, nested wine glasses. In modern performances, this instrument is often replaced by a flute.

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