The Operatic Way of Death
Created | Updated Nov 15, 2007
Anyone familiar with operatic plotlines will realise that tragic operas always include at least one death. The writers (known as librettists) have always tried to provide both novelty and emotion, and so have invoked some surprising ways of dying.
Murder by Spouses, Lovers, Villains And Their Minions
In opera, murderous husbands and male lovers tend to act out of jealousy, while wives and female lovers are more likely to go mad. A distinctive feature about operatic murder is that the victim is likely to revive long enough to sing an aria before expiring decoratively.
Bizet's Carmen provides an example of the jealous lover, with Don José stabbing Carmen as the finale of the opera. Verdi's Rigoletto has a particularly impressive minion, the bass Sparafucile who stabs the heroine Gilda. Gilda, in spite of being thrust into a sack, survives long enough to sing a sad farewell to her father, the hunchback Rigoletto. Death by stabbing provides a great opportunity for either the murderer or the victim to stagger round the stage, covered in fake blood and clutching the fatal dagger. Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti is a classic example, where the famous 'mad scene' takes place after Lucia murders her husband on their wedding night.
Smothering and Shooting
By operatic standards, many forms of murder are almost run-of-the-mill. Otello, by Verdi, follows Shakespeare when Otello first smothers Desdemona and then stabs himself. Desdemona revives long enough to touchingly declare her innocence, while the dying Otello is able to sing mournfully about one last kiss. In another Verdi work, Un Ballo in Maschera, the hero is shot in an assassination, at the masked ball of the title. In the original version the hero was King Gustav of Sweden, but the censor in Naples took fright at the idea of a King being assassinated on stage, and prevented any performance. When the opera was finally staged, in Rome, the hero was now merely the English Governor of Boston.
Jack the Ripper
Alban Berg's Lulu has a series of lurid low-life adventures, ending up as a prostitute in 19th Century London. Her final client turns out to be Jack the Ripper, who murders both Lulu and her lesbian admirer the Countess Geschwitz.
Apart from Otello, other heroes who stab themselves include Herman in Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades). Simple stabbing is not harsh enough for two of Puccini's heroines. Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly commits hara-kiri after handing her child over to his heartless American father, while Liù in Turandot is gruesomely tortured, before stabbing herself rather than betray the hero's secret.
The High Jump
Jumping into a river seems to be a particular favourite of Eastern European composers. This method is chosen by the heroine Lisa in Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, by Janácek's Katya Kabanova and by Shostakovitch's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Katerina Ismailova ('Lady Macbeth') outdoes the others by drowning her rival as well as herself.
In Puccini's Tosca, the heroine jumps off the ramparts of the Castel Sant Angelo when she discovers that her lover has been shot. Senta, the heroine of Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) combines both effects by jumping off a cliff into the sea. Since she declares herself faithful as she jumps, she lifts the curse from the Flying Dutchman.
Auber's Masaniello is almost forgotten nowadays, except for its final plot twist. Mount Vesuvius erupts in the background, and the heroine Fenella, in despair at her brother's death, jumps into a river of molten lava which is flowing down from the volcano.
Using Poisonous Plants
Meyerbeer's L'Africaine is rarely performed nowadays. Selika, the African girl of the title, allows the man she loves to escape with her rival. Like many other selfless operatic heroines, she then chooses to kill herself, but her method is unique. She lies down under a mançanilla tree, inhales its poisonous fumes, and dies. In real life, while the mançanilla tree (Hippomane mancinella) can cause nasty illness, there is no record of it ever being fatal, let alone of someone dying of the fumes.
Lakmé by Delibes is a bit more accurate botanically. The Indian Lakmé, abandoned by her lover, eats a flower from a Datura plant and expires. The librettist got this partly right, since Datura species can indeed be fatal, but the death they cause is violently unpleasant, unlike Lakmé's tastefully graceful end. Puccini takes a safer path with Sister Angelica (in Il Trittico). As she works in the convent garden, she is able to take a fatal mixture of unnamed plants; since she sees a vision of the Virgin Mary as she dies, some of the convent herbs were presumably hallucinogenic.
Entering a Fire
In Wagner's Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods) Brünnhilde's suicide provides the climax to the whole Ring cycle of operas. On finding that Siegfried is dead, she rides her horse into the flames surrounding his pyre. Since she brings the ill-fated Ring of the Nibelung with her, this causes the destruction of Valhalla and the downfall of Wotan and the other gods.
Execution or Martyrdom
Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Operas set in the dim and distant past provide a great opportunity to indulge in striking methods of execution. In Bellini's Norma, the heroine is a priestess in ancient Gaul. Since she has broken her vow of chastity, she and her Roman lover are burnt to death on a pyre. Another victim who in the end goes willingly to her martyrdom is Rachel (the Jewess of Halévy's La Juive, which is set in the Middle Ages). She gruesomely chooses to jump into a cauldron of boiling oil rather than renounce her faith. In Verdi's Aida, the hero Radames is sentenced to be walled off in a dungeon, and Aida herself joins him in this miserable death.
Opera also has plenty of examples of more ordinary executions. In Andrea Chénier by Giordano, the poet Chénier is sent to the guillotine during the French Revolution. His lover Madeleine changes places with another girl, in order to accompany him in death. Cavarodossi, in Puccini's Tosca, is executed by firing squad. Britten's Billy Budd is court-martialled and hanged on a Royal Navy ship.
Disease, Exhaustion and Old Age
In the 19th Century, consumption1 was the only infectious disease which acquired any glamour. The victims often had deceptively healthy-looking bright red cheeks, and no obvious symptoms apart from coughing and weakness. This made the disease a favourite of librettists when killing off their most attractive heroines. Consumptives with great breath control can be found in La Traviata by Verdi, La Bohème by Puccini and Tales of Hoffmann by Offenbach.
Massenet, Puccini and Auber all set the story of Manon Lescaut to music. In all three operas, Manon dies of exhaustion. In Massenet's version (known simply as Manon) this occurs remarkably quickly, on the road to Le Havre. Puccini has it happening barely more plausibly, in a deserted plain near New Orleans. Auber's earlier version is the most remarkable of all, with Manon dying in a Louisiana desert, complete with ravening tigers in the background.
As a cause of death, old age is normally too dull for opera librettists. In The Makropulos Affair, however, Janácek manages to make this dramatic. The heroine, Elina Makropulos, has lived for hundreds of years with the help of an elixir of life. She finally refuses to renew her youth with the elixir, and thereupon shrivels away and dies.
Excess of Emotion
All too many supposedly natural operatic deaths actually have insufficient cause. Wagner was particularly fond of deciding that his heroines' time was up, without explaining what actually killed them. Isolde in Tristan und Isolde has a particularly dramatic death of this kind: she sings herself to death in ecstasy in the famous Liebestod solo.
Death by Supernatural Means
This is likely to involve being dragged down to Hell, and should provide a satisfyingly dramatic spectacle for the audience. Any producer who weasels out of providing the required special effects should be booed off the stage. The most famous work with such a dramatic flourish is Don Giovanni by Mozart. Otherwise known as 'The reprobate punished', this opera features a statue that comes to life to threaten Don Giovanni with retribution for his crimes. He defies the statue, and is dragged down to hell. The Sorcerer (by Gilbert and Sulllivan) provides a contrast: In this case, the devils and spirits who drag the sorcerer down to hell are likely to be members of a local amateur musical society, and the requisite sinister atmosphere may be missing.
Grand Massacre of Most of the Cast
Grand massacres were particularly suited to Grand Opera, and so were a speciality of 19th Century French operas. In Samson et Delila (by Saint-Saëns), Samson pulls down the pillars of the temple and kills himself, Delila, and all the Philistines on stage. Most grand massacres use a selection of the various methods of execution and suicide mentioned earlier. Dialogues des Carmélites, by Poulenc, ends with the whole community of nuns going to the guillotine, with one less voice in the chorus as each one dies. Moussorgsky's Khovanshchina (The Khovansky Rising) reaches a climax when the whole cast of Old Believers walk into a funeral pyre together.