Scott, Opera and the Italian Journey

Earlier this year I was invited by Abbotsford, together with the Italian and Japanese Consuls in Scotland, to give a twenty minute opening address as part of a musical evening at Abbotsford, in which singers from the Royal College of Music and Drama gave a programme of songs from Scott-based operas, focusing on Lucia de Lammermoor and The Lady of the Lake. I accepted on the basis that I could briefly do three things: firstly, assert the modern relevance of Scott; secondly, speak all too briefly regarding Lucia and The Lady of the Lake, and lastly, and I thought, appropriately for our hosts, I could give a short account of Scott’s Italian journey of 1831, that last few months of vivid experience just before his death at Abbotsford. I do not think readers of The Bottle Imp need to be reminded of Scott’s modern relevance, so what follows is the second and third part of that presentation.

Scott and Opera

There was for Scott an early Italian connection. The young Scott was fascinated by tales of European chivalry; and no more so than in his love of Boiardo, Tasso and—outstandingly—Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, with its wonderfully ironic portrayal of tormented heroes, which surely (with Cervantes and Don Quixote) helped shape Scott’s so underestimated subversion of his surface romance by ironic realism. (Oddly, Dante not so much; Scott wondered why Dante sent so many Italians to hell when there were so many historic Britons who better deserved damnation …)

Lucia - Polish PosterWhat was it about Scott’s poems and novels that attracted composers all over Europe—and inspired more than seventy operas? (More than forty of them are Italian.) We have four on Rob Roy, four on The Heart of Midlothian, eight on The Bride of Lammermoor, and no less than eleven each on Ivanhoe and Kenilworth. An easy answer might point to the suffering heroines of so many of these, and their attraction through dramatic song (such as Lucia’s famous ‘mad scene’) for demonstrating the technical skills of a prima donna. But is it not also to do with what I discussed as Scott’s romantic innovations in his work, in landscape, in symbolism, and in the way the old supernatural traditions of Europe and Scotland are combined with psychological tensions arising from dramatic historical change, which astonished the world and influenced nations as well as composers?

But of course composers and librettists made substantial—sometimes crucial—changes in their adaptations of Scott’s originals. I restrict myself here to a very brief and personal response to the major changes made by Rossini and Donizetti in adapting The Lady of the Lake and The Bride of Lammermuir.

Rossini, it seems to me, casts his opera’s atmosphere in terms of Ossian rather than Scott—’the sons of Fingal’ are at war for a vague Fatherland. And certainly in the version I have seen Roderick Dhu is more like Finn MacCoull than a Highland chief. No harm in this; opera exploits Scott for potential set scenes and choric magnificence, just as modern Shakespeare productions change the author’s historic settings and implications. Donizetti’s version of Lucia seems to me stronger, more appropriately adapted—despite losing Scott’s Lady Macbeth, the tyrannous and duplicitous Lady Ashton, and suggesting that her replacement is Lucia’s Stepmother, and that she is already sad in grieving for her own dead mother. It’s true that Scott’s story is drastically altered, with the range of Scott’s dramatis personae severely restricted.

Yet what Donizetti manages, I believe, is to take the core of Scott’s ballad-like tale of thwarted passion. Yes, the detail of politics and Lord Ashton’s duplicities and manipulations disappears, as does Caleb Balderstone, the utterly loyal, grotesquely comic remaining servant of the Master of Ravenswood, along with other sinister dramatis personae, like the evil Jacobite Craigengelt. The intensity of Scott’s blind blind seer Alice, who foretells the tragedy, is diluted. In setting, the castle of Wolf’s Crag, ghastly above the German Ocean, drawn from Fast Castle in Berwickshire, fades also, but the cursed fountain, central to Scott’s action, is maintained, binding the two lovers in their destiny. If I have a real regret, it’s that Lady Ashton, Scott’s Lady Macbeth in her scheming and ruthless ambition, is omitted altogether—but presumably the sheer power needed in song to present her would have taken away from the different power of Lucia’s grief and madness.

But opera is opera and Scott is Scott; their genres are utterly different, and we should simply be grateful that Scott’s work acted as stimulus and platform for very different realisations.

The Italian Journey of 1831–32

Scott rarely left Britain. Indeed, apart from the 1815 celebratory trip to Paris and the field of Waterloo, Dublin in 1825 to meet Maria Edgeworth, and visits to London, he travelled mainly in Scotland and the north of England. It’s surely all the more revealing of his feeling for Italy that he decided in 1831, for his health’s sake—and before it was too late?—to start a European tour by sailing to Malta and then Naples.

It tells us of his huge British and international standing that a Royal Navy frigate was put at his and his family’s disposal. His son Charles worked in Naples for The Foreign Office; several expatriates, notably Sir William Gell, whose Reminiscences of Scott’s visit are a crucial record of the visit, joined in his enthusiastic reception by distinguished Italians ranging from the King of Naples to the Archbishop of Toranto (Scott’s pigeon French only matched by Royal and Ecclesiastical Italian English!).

After Bay of Biscay storms and sickness Scott had rallied suprisingly; and his spirits were high in Naples, especially as his publisher wrote to say that his two last novels, Count Robert of Paris and Castle Dangerous, were selling very well. (Scott, you will recall, was declared bankrupt in 1826, and insisted on writing to pay the enormous debt—so he felt optimistic in Naples that clearance was in sight). Earlier, Malta had suggested a new romance, The Siege of Malta, typically setting Christian Templar Knights against invading Turks, which he claimed was substantially written before he left Naples. Fears by family and friends regarding his paralytic strokes ebbed. He wrote an Italian story (which was to be his last), and sent it home to his publisher; ‘Il Bizarro’ is a powerful unfinished short story, set in Italy, piece about a Calabrian bandit who strangled his child to avoid detection. Ominously, however, neither The Siegenor the story were to see the light of day—until the recent Edinburgh edition of The Siege of Malta and Bizarro (2008). Lockhart thought that the unfinished text of The Siege, a rambling account of the confrontations of Moors and Christians leading up to the heroic defence of Malta in 1565, demonstrated that Scott’s health was so far gone that he had lost the ability to write coherently. More recently, Andrew Monnickendam has speculated that these are ‘the farewell thoughts of […] a very gloomy writer of romance’.

For Scott, however he rallied, was dying. Yet Italy gave him great consolation in these final days. He was given a last benedictory surge by the kindness of strangers in showing him Pompey, volcanoes, haunted castles, (‘La Casa della Spiriti’, which could almost be Wolf’s Crag of Lucia), the massively impressive Greek Temples at Paestum. From the heights above, he saw the Lake of Avernus, the Temple of Apollo, and the sea—and thought of the ill-fated Stuarts in exile, in a way which was to become a running motif through his journeying. This stimulation aroused his failing imagination. It is moving to see how Scott re-created the dominant patterning of his own novels in superimposing them on the astonishing scenery around Naples, like that of the tortuous road towards Amalfi, where, on seeing a striking tower high on a ridge, he invested it with the role of The Knights Castle, the Christian frontier against the Mahometans. Touching also is his habit if reciting his favourite poems and songs as he recognised similar settings, as with the beautiful monastery of La Trinity della Cava, surrounded by forest of chestnuts and mountains, where he chanted clearly the whole of his ballad ‘Jock of Hazeldean’. (Perhaps this should be set more ominously against the fact that at Pompey he had muttered gloomily and monotonously ‘The City of the Dead, the City of the Dead’?)

Scott had planned to continue his tour to include Greece—and not until leaving Naples for Rome did he give up the idea. He, daughter Anne and Charles were all unwell; a wheel came off their carriage; they suffered dreadful headaches through the Pontine Marshes; and to cap all, got lost in Rome, where Scott tells us that ‘they paraded the streets by moonlight’ till by luck a servant from their new quarters found them. ‘Papa was a good deal worse for this journey’, wrote Charles; and indeed this was the beginning of terminal decline. Even then, no one could stop the virtually crippled Scott from romantic sightseeing. Oddly, classical antiquities like the Colosseum did not interest him, while scenes of Renaissance romance did: Cellini’s house, Scott wanting to see exactly where Cellini shot the Constable of Bourbon; St Peter’s (where he heard the Papal benediction from Benedict XVI, who expressed a desire to meet Scott—but the meeting did not take place). And of course Scott insisted on following the Roman traces of the exiled Stuarts, whose careers had aroused in him such conflicting emotions and loyalties, like Canova’s monument to them in St Peter’s, and the Villa Muti at Frascati.

He roused to his best one last time with his friends Gell and Captain Edward Cheney. In what seems now a kind of last supper, he quoted Boiardo and Ariosto with gusto, telling the company that he read their work at least once a year. He deplored Dante’s delight in singling out fellow Italians for hell; he acknowledged Cervantes as his inspiration and master. And just after he let slip to Don Luigi Santa Croce, taxing him with cruel to heroines, that ‘of all the murders that I have committed in that way, […] there is none that went so much to my heart as the poor Bride of Lammermoor; but it could not be helped […]’.

And from this point on the road home was all downhill in terms of health and happiness. Visiting The Castle of Bracciano, magnificent above its lake, Scott was found lamenting Goethe’s recent death—and admitting that to visit Greece was impossible. Thereafter Scott simply wanted home. Florence, Bologna, and even Venice passed for him without any of the excitement of former days. Only the boat journey down the Rhine awoke Scott, with crags, monasteries and castles. Another stroke forced him to bed; for the rest of his journey he was semi-conscious. After a harrowing journey home, he just wanted Abbotsford—and he would die a difficult death, his bed placed in the window of his dining-room next door so that he could hear the Tweed flowing by.

Thus ended Scott’s last and greatest foreign tour. There are two consolations in such a sad decline; firstly, that he was close to settling all his debts, a monumental feat of integrity and courage; second (and perhaps you will forgive me for a touch of sentiment here) that Italy gave Scott such a last flair of colour and romance. As a lover of Scott and Abbotsford, I’d like to pay tribute to Italy, and Scott’s friends there, then and now, for some of the most vivid months of his life.

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