In 1908, the superstar tenor Enrico Caruso and five colleagues made a recording that became an instant legend -- both for the quality of its musical artistry, and for its exorbitant price. Fittingly, the music came from an opera that's been creating a similar sensation ever since its premiere in 1835.
The recording is of the sextet from Act Two of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermooor. It was released on a single-sided record at a price of $7, earning it a nickname it has carried ever since: the "Seven-Dollar Sextet." In terms of buying power, seven 1908 dollars might well purchase nearly $200 worth of stuff now -- depending on how you do the math -- and these days you can find the sextet online for about a buck!
The fame of the sextet itself hardly ended with that one recording. It turned up in the 1932 mob movie Scarface, whistled by a hitman played by Paul Muni. And its penetration into the wider culture continued in a similar vein in 2006, when the mob boss played by Jack Nicholson in Martin Scorsese's The Departed used the sextet's melody as his ringtone.
Yet the Lucia sextet probably isn't the opera's most famous number. That distinction would fall to the title character's great mad scene in the final act; it's hard to top a beautiful young bride, in a blood-spattered nightgown, going totally nuts after stabbing her new husband to death -- on their wedding night.
As for the opera itself, its cultural impact as a whole has also been impressive. From the start, it was seen as perhaps the ultimate expression of Romantic era sensibility, and it made its impact felt in literature as well as in the theater. Lucia is mentioned in novels ranging from Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and E. M. Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread, to John Irving's The Hotel New Hampshire.
But, returning to the sextet: It may not be the opera's best-known number, and the opera in its entirety may be even more sensational than any of its great, individual moments. Yet the sextet does remind us that for Lucia's mad scene and the opera's compelling, Romantic story line to have their full effect, it takes a perfect storm of troubled characters and turbulent relationships -- and they're all wrapped up in that one, exquisite ensemble.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor in a production from the Grand Liceu Theater in Barcelona. The stars are soprano Elena Mosuc in the title role, with tenor Juan Diego Flórez as Edgardo and baritone Marco Caria as Enrico, in a performance led by conductor Daniel Gil de Tejada.