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In his book Mason & Dixon Thomas Pynchon wrote, “If chimes could whisper, if melodies could pass away, and their souls wander the earth.” He was describing the sound of the glass harmonica, a rare musical instrument whose ghostly reverberations were believed to cause madness among those who heard them.
And in fact a disproportionate number of those who played it reportedly succumbed to mental illness. It is a unique instrument saddled with a bizarre and storied history, making it a perfect fit for the climactic “mad” scene in Gaetano Donizetti‘s opera Lucia di Lammermoor.
But don’t let fear of losing your faculties keep you away from the new L.A. Opera production running through April 6, starring both the instrument and Russian coloratura soprano Albina Shagimuratova as a noblewoman driven mad by ghosts and the heartbreak of star-crossed love. James Conlon conducts, with glass harmonica virtuoso Thomas Bloch joining the orchestra for the three-week run.
A rotating horizontal spindle supporting graduated bowls that ring to the touch, the glass harmonica is the result of tinkering by none other than Benjamin Franklin, who modified it from earlier prototypes. Roughly 400 works have been composed for the instrument, including compositions by Beethoven, Bach, Strauss and Mozart, who wrote two works after being introduced to it by his acquaintance Dr. Franz Mesmer who used the glass harmonica to mesmerize his patients.
On the eve of Lucia di Lammermoor‘s 1835 world premiere in Naples, a pay dispute resulted in the instrument being dropped from the production, and the mad scene was hastily rewritten for two flutes. Bloch is among only a dozen or so who play the glass harmonica, and was the first to play the mad scene the way Donizetti intended at a La Scala premiere of the opera back in the 1990s.
“I was fascinated by the sound of the instrument and the music composed for it,” Bloch tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Technically the challenge is to obtain a sound each time you play it, which it not really easy to do. You have to prepare your hands very carefully before you play, to wash your hands several times. If you are lucky enough you can bring a sound.”
Washing one’s hands may sound simple enough, but for Bloch it can only be done with hard water flown in from Europe, rather than the soft water of Southern California. Alongside the bowl of water he keeps next to his instrument is a small plastic bag full of chalk dust, which he mixes in before washing his hands with a typically hard soap that makes his fingertips rough.
The Bride of Lammermoor was written by Sir Walter Scott in 1819 and was based on a real-life murder that took place in 1669. In Donizetti’s opera, Lucia is a noblewoman living at Ravenswood Castle in Scotland with her brother, Enrico, lord of the estate. He hopes to avoid financial ruin by marrying Lucia to a wealthy nobleman, Arturo, although she is secretly in love with Edgardo, the estate’s estranged but rightful heir. Pressed into a marriage to a man she doesn’t love and fooled into thinking her real lover has forsaken her, Lucia murders Arturo and arrives at her own wedding party covered in his blood.
“This opera was a success from its inception and it practically never left the stage ever since 1835,” notes conductor Conlon, an admirer of the temporary addition to his orchestra. “It was Donizetti’s primary wish to have it done [with the glass harmonica]. I chose in favor of doing this because of its uniqueness.”
Donizetti suffered from progressive insanity toward the end of his life, an end that some glass harmonica players of the past were said to suffer due to lead poisoning from the instrument’s crystals and adorning coat of paint. And although Bloch notes there is no proof lead can enter the bloodstream by mere touch, just to be sure he’s always certain to wash his hands after every show.
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