Not all mothers are so wonderful. Opera has more than its fair shares of downright horrors – mothers who are murderous, incestuous, overbearing, duplicitous, deranged with jealousy, you name it.
Here, then, for your delectation, are six of the choicest examples…
Agrippina in Handel’s Agrippina
Given the catalogue of horrific crimes described by the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius, Agrippina gets off comparatively lightly in Handel’s eponymous opera of 1710. Even here, though, the wife of the emperor Claudius is someone you’d probably want to steer clear of. The über-ambitious Agrippina has her mind set on getting her son Nero onto the throne ASAP, and thinks nothing of setting the members of her household against each other to achieve that aim – and if one or two innocent people fall by the wayside, then so be it. When her ruse is eventually discovered, she then has the gall to twist things round and insist she was doing it to make Claudius more powerful. This being feel-good Handel, there is no revenge and blood-shedding and all, in fact, ends rather fluffily and joyfully.
Klytämnestra in Richard Strauss’s Elektra
From Roman history à la Handel, we move to Richard Strauss's take on Sophoclean tragedy. Having bumped off her husband, Agamemnon, on his return from Troy, Klytämnestra (above) now lives in a state of paranoia that she will be killed in turn by one of her own children. As a result, she keeps one of them, Elektra, in a state befitting a wild animal at the family palace of Mycenae. And when told that another of them, Orestes, has been killed, she cannot hide her delight and laughs maniacally. Alas for her, she has been deceived – Orestes is not dead and, as she feared, takes bloody revenge on his father’s behalf.
Herodias in Richard Strauss’s Salome
Strauss’s Salome and Elektra have much in common, not least their gruesome maternal presences. Herodias in Salome is not a huge role, but more than amply manages to cast her shadow of unpleasantness over proceedings. While Herod, Salome’s stepfather, has qualms about the treatment of the doomed Jokaanan (John the Baptist) during the prophet’s imprisonment, and is truly horrified when Salome asks for his head on a plate, Herodias unashamedly relishes it all, encouraging her daughter at each and every turn. In an opera of hideous characters, which shocked audiences at its premiere in 1909, she is the coolest-headed, most calculating, and truly most vile, of them all.
Medea in Cherubini's Médée
Anything Sophocles and Strauss can do, Euripides and Cherubini can do even more bloodily. Hell hath no fury like a mother scorned, as Cherubini reveals in spades in his 1797 opera, based on Euripides's play of the same name. Having borne Jason two sons, Medea is unsurprisingly miffed when he abandons her to marry King Creon's daughter, Dircé, instead. Banished, but hiding her wrath, Medea asks Creon if she can at least spend some time with her children before she heads elsewhere, and also sends over a couple of wedding gifts to the happy bride. Her wish is granted, and the gifts are duly delivered. The outcome? One dead bride and two dead children – the gifts were, it turns out, poisoned, and then, left with her sons in the Temple, Medea murders them.
Semiramide in Rossini’s Semiramide
Like Klÿtemnestra in Sophocles’s Elektra, Rossini’s Semiramide harbours a dark secret – the Babylonian Queen murdered her own husband, Nino. Unlike Klÿtemnestra, however, Semiramide doesn’t wish her son, Arsace, dead. In fact, she has fallen head over heels in love with him, and will let nothing get in the way of her romance with the dashing young commander. To be fair to her, mind, she doesn’t actually know that Arsace is her son, leading to all sorts of potential Oedipan outcomes… were it not for Arsace learning of the identity of his father’s killer, and vowing to avenge him. It all ends bloodily.
Kabinicha in Janáček’s Kat’a Kabanova
When it comes to hideous mother figures, you might think that the fearsome Kostelnicka in Janáček’s Jenufa might wear the crown – she does, after all, secretly take the her own stepdaughter’s baby and drown her in a stream. There is, though, something strangely well-meaning, if horribly misguided, about her actions. Worse still is Kabinicha, mother of the feeble-minded Tichon and mother-in-law of the title character in the same composer’s Kat’a Kabanova (1921). A bully in extremis towards Kat’a, Kabanicha is rarely slow to criticise her, order her how to behave, or generally make her life misery. Eventually, Kat’a seeks means of escape, first with a brief entente and then, racked with guilt, by hurling herself into the Volga. When her body is discovered, Kabanicha seems none too worried about it. Life, as they say, goes on…
Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.