In opera’s primary-coloured world, when characters aren’t falling in love they are dying with enthusiastic regularity. We take a look through some of opera’s most notorious crime scenes – from the bloodiest to the most emotive, not to mention to the most bizarre…
Mozart’s Don Giovanni
One of the greatest anti-heroes of opera, Mozart’s Don Giovanni is the man generations of opera-goers have loved to hate. Following his amorous exploits, his climatic demise at the hands of the ghostly Commendatore provided both a dramatic coup de grace and a justificatory moral conclusion for the opera’s 18th-century audience.
The Don’s death is all the more striking for being oblique; not for him the banal swords of man, but instead a literal descent into hell amid flames.
While Mozart’s original moralizing epilogue has a distinctly disquieting effect, it’s the revised version of the opera that packs the real punch, with the curtains boldly closing on the moment of death itself.
Silvio and Nedda
The moment at which a bedroom farce becomes a tragedy yields one of the most swiftly brutal death scenes in opera. In Leoncavallo‘s one-act opera, premiered in 1893, the actor-hero Canio is desperate to discover the identity of his wife Nedda’s lover.
Failing to find the answer before the opera’s play-within-a-play begins, he finally finds it during the ‘fictional’ play in the form of his co-star and friend Silvio. Tearing off his mask and forgetting his theatrical role he stabs them both, proclaiming ‘La commedia e finita’ – both the play and the fiction are well and truly over.
Verdi’s La traviata
Among the litany of consumptive heroines who hack and faint their way through the operatic canon, it is perhaps Violetta who makes the most moving – and unashamedly protracted – of exits.
Imperfectly human in a way that the saintly Mimi in Puccini‘s La bohème never truly is, Violetta’s passionate strength of character really raises the stakes on her fight for life. Rarely succumbing to weakness, the passive fragility of her death scene, ‘Addio del passato’, is exquisitely painful, heightened further by Alfredo’s wishful hopes for their future.
Unlike Mimi’s quiet – initially unnoticed – slip into death, Violetta’s final rallying moments command all attention in the closing tableau. She’s left framed in the arms of her lover – as all Romantic heroines should be.
When Floria Tosca hurled herself from the battlements of Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo at the eponymous opera’s premiere in 1900, critics were swift to claim it as the end not only of the heroine, but also of opera as an art form. But like Tosca itself, the genre has proved remarkably resilient – living to die on many other occasions.
Tosca’s death is a moment not so much of tragedy but of victory. With a forte reprise of Cavaradossi’s ‘E lucevan le stelle’ running beneath, Tosca is able to transform his ‘hopeless’ death into her triumphant one, defying and defeating the evil Scarpia in a single gesture.
The Carmelite nuns
Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites
Few operas can claim either the body count or the chilling impact of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites. Operatic death – so often the province of melodrama – here becomes an event of terrifyingly understated intensity.
Based on the true story of a convent of Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution, the opera’s closing scene forces us to witness the execution of the entire order – martyrs for their faith. As, one by one, they walk to the guillotine, the nuns sing a Salve Regina, until reduced to a single solo voice. Cut brutally short by the blow of the guillotine, the hymn finishes mid-phrase, its unfulfilled resolution hanging ghost-like in the air.
Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre
Described by the composer himself as an ‘anti-anti-opera’, Ligeti’s gloriously anarchic Le Grand Macabre simultaneously mocks and embraces operatic conventions – including, of course, the death scene.
We first encounter the voracious Mescalina indulging in sadistic sexual games with her meekly subservient husband Astradamors. Unsatisfied, and demanding a ‘well-hung’ lover, she is delighted by the arrival of Nekrotzar (Death); the two proceed to engage in vigorous sex until, with a single bite to the neck, Mescalina is killed.
Yet as with so much else in this work, even death is not all it appears. At the close of the opera Nekrotzar is exposed: not Death after all, but a charlatan. To the distress of the newly-freed Astradamors, his wife is returned to him. Unharmed.