DEATH, OPERATIC STYLE
In most operas, somebody dies. Usually it’s the hero or the heroine, or both of them. Occasionally, someone else will get in on the act, too, not wanting to be left out of all the fun. Whatever or whoever, death in most operas is as inevitable as a tenor’s expanding waistline.
Operatic characters don’t die like everyone else. For one thing, they die singing. I don’t know about the rest of you, but if I were dying of some awful disease or someone had just stabbed or poisoned me, the last thing I would want to do would be to sing about it. “Somebody call 911!” would be my most likely reaction, provided, of course, that I were capable of making any sound at all. Most likely, I’d just fall back and die and leave the commentary to someone else.
In Act I of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Don Giovanni has just broken into the bedroom of an attractive woman, with the idea of breaking into her. She isn’t about to take that lying down, and she makes enough noise to wake up everyone, including her elderly father. The father and Giovanni get into a sword fight, which lasts about thirty seconds until Giovanni runs him through.
You’d think that would be the end of the elderly man, but it isn’t. Damned if he, Giovanni and Giovanni’s servant don’t spend the next three minutes or so singing a trio about how the old man’s soul is slowly leaving his “palpitating bosom.” It’s only on the final cadence of the trio that the old man is finally able to die and be done with it. The poor man gets no rest even then, though. Toward the end of the opera, he comes back as his own statue and tells Giovanni to go to Hell, which he does.
In other words, Giovanni gets a dramatic demise. While he’s singing about how terrified he is, Hell opens up, with fire, smoke and demons who are trying to outsing him. The demons win the contest, and with one last scream Giovanni goes right to eternal damnation. There is no soul leaving a palpitating bosom for him. One minute he’s up here and the next minute he’s down there. Then everybody who is still alive comes onstage and they all sing about how that’s the way nasty people end up, just in case the audience didn’t already get the message.
Sacrificing yourself for love is another popular operatic death. In a previous lesson, I mentioned Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda, who turns herself over to be assassinated in place of the jackass tenor she’s in love with. The guy who does the deed is supposedly a professional hit man, but you’d never know it. Gilda lives long enough to be picked up by her father and to sing at least a five-minute duet with him, about how she’s going to pray for him up in heaven, as if that would make him feel any better about the whole thing.
Speaking of not dying right away, the champion here has to be Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello. (Those of you who know the Shakespeare play can skip this paragraph because you already know what I’m going to say.) Desdemona is strangled by Otello, who thinks she’s dead because she isn’t moving, but she isn’t – yet. Everyone is surprised a minute later when she starts to sing again. She sings a couple of things, then she dies.
In another Verdi opera, Il Trovatore, the heroine, Leonora, also sacrifices herself for love of the tenor, but she doesn’t depend on someone else to do it. She takes poison. Unfortunately, it’s a quicker acting poison than she thought, her whole plan to save her one true love gets messed up because the timing is off, and he ends up being beheaded (offstage, fortunately).
Speaking of suicide, the stupidest example of this has to be the hero of Verdi’s Ernani, who offs himself just because he promised someone else he would do so. And they say sopranos are dumb!
In Verdi’s Aïda, the tenor hero and the soprano heroine end up being sealed alive in a tomb, with no food or water or fresh air, waiting to be found by archaeologists a few thousand years later. That’s what you get for living in ancient Egypt and pissing off the Pharaoh’s daughter.
Knives, pistols, poison, swords, terminal illness, magic, bare hands — all are used to great effect in dispatching operatic characters. It’s a grand tradition.