The Metropolitan Opera kicked off its new season this week with Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The singers and the return of conductor James Levine to the opening-night podium (after protracted health problems) were all well-received.
In honor of this beginning of the season, which labor strife kept in doubt for much of the summer (now seemingly resolved), I want to flip it around and have some fond, good-natured fun with some of the more bizarre-to-insane ways that operas can end. I’m talking about the operas’ plots here, the famously artificial, often illogical melodrama that opera fans learn to accept and then love, though often with rueful bemusement at the improbable narrative events.
Figaro is a great opera, and a fun comedy, especially considering the jokes were written for the 18th century. But it is fairly straightforward farce, with characters dressing as each other to trick various husbands into learning their lessons. Le nozze di Figaro does not even make my list. So many operas go so much further off the rails that middle of the road farce hardly registers. I begin below with something else from Mozart, however.
Puccini comes closer, but still no. He does have a go-to finale, though. His Madama Butterfly ends with Butterfly dead and Pinkerton holding her, crying out “Butterfly! Butterfly!”…just as La bohème ends with Mimi dead and Rodolfo crying out “Mimi! Mimi!” I’m sure Cavaradossi would cry out “Tosca! Tosca!” if he weren’t already dead before she throws herself off the roof of the Castel Sant’Angelo. (You’re chuckling in appreciation if you’re up on your Puccini. Take my word for it.)
Note: I’m saving the best for last. You won’t even be able to sleep after you read how Verdi’s Il trovatore ends. It’s a doozy.
1) Mozart’s Don Giovanni
Don Giovanni is a complicated and exquisite opera, jokey and menacing by turns; Søren Kierkegaard called it perfect. Giovanni is the protagonist, but he’s not very sympathetic. Anyone who’s seen Amadeus knows he ends up being dragged, terrified, to a fiery hell by a statue/ghost of a man he murdered in the first act. But immediately after that, the rest of the cast erupt in a jaunty, celebratory “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” ensemble to finish out the show in an unexpected tone.
2) Rossini’s La Cenerentola
Perhaps not as bonkers a finale as some of the others in this list, La Cenerentola, a version of Cinderella, ends with a married, ecstatic Angelina (Cinderella isn’t her real name!), remarkable for the purity of her radiance. You know the story: abused by her step-family, but with a heart of gold, the prince tracks her down and finds her in her rags, abject and resigned to thanklessly serving her step-father and step-sisters. Jerks! The prince rescues her and whisks her away to be a princess.
As a rule, bel canto operas end with the prima donna giving the audience her everything in elaborate arias expressing various moods according to the specific plot of each opera: joy, misery, resignation and/or defiance in the face of imminent execution, unlucky in supernatural love and being dragged off by demons, you know, the usual.
After singing about the suffering into which she was born, Cenerentola launches into a final cabaletta, “Non più mesta” (“No longer shall I sit sadly by the fire”). Many, many singers have performed this beautifully and expertly—and with evident fun—but Cecilia Bartoli, in the above video, brings something extra. Look at her face and then tell me you don’t wish your day were going half as well as hers. Opera is magic!
PROTIP: If an aria begins with “Vivi,” the character singing is announcing him- or herself as a professional in the art of passive aggression. “Vivi” means “live,” as in the command to live, go ahead, despite everything—you know what you did!—I still want the best for you…you don’t even deserve it, but I’m fine, it’s fine. Everything’s fine. Be happy, don’t worry about me; it doesn’t matter what happens to me. I’m already past it. Really. Live!
In Rodelinda, the aria is “Vivi, tiranno” (“Live, tyrant”). Watch countertenor Bejun Mehta sing it here. Bertarido, the usurped king, has come back to challenge his tyrannical usurper, Grimoaldo. When it looks like Bertarido and his young son are going to be killed and his wife Rodelinda forced to marry Grimoaldo, he sings “Vivi tiranno” to at the villain. Italian baroque arias have very little text, usually just a few lines, and in performance the singer repeats the lyrics several times, adding different inflections and increasingly elaborate ornaments to each iteration. This style is particularly effective in an aria like this, where Bertarido gets to come up with a variety of ways to punch the word “tyrant” (and a few choice other words), really, really bringing the idea home.
The aria is “Vivi, ingrato” (“Live, ingrate”) in Roberto Devereux. The character singing it is the elderly Queen Elizabeth I, in love with the much younger Roberto. He and Sara are in love with each other despite the queen and despite Sara’s, well, husband. Watch the incomparable Beverly Sills sing the aria here. Roberto is condemned for treason (unrelated to his love life), but Elizabeth tries to save him, even knowing that he’d end up with Sara rather than with her. While waiting to find out whether Roberto has been saved in time, the queen sings “Vivi, ingrato,” which must be somewhat unsatisfying for her, since he’s off with the executioner and not in the room to hear her: “Live, ingrate, by her side / may my heart forgive you / Live, cruel man and abandon me / to sigh eternally.” Ouch.
In the end, in both these cases, there’s an extra level of irony, since neither passive-aggressive scenario ultimately goes as planned. In Rodelinda, Grimoaldo turns out to be willing not to be a tyrant anymore; he goes back to his duchy, leaving Bertarido free to return to his kingdom and his family. Roberto, on the other hand, remains ungrateful, but, it turns out, doesn’t manage the living part. (Sara’s husband thwarts the rescue plan and lets the execution proceed.)
My personal operatic inclinations lean heavily toward the Italian (as in, the rest of this list), but there’s fun to be had with opera in other languages, too. Wagner’s Ring Cycle is a complex, robust, leitmotif-heavy operatic monument that I’ll admit to never having made it through completely, even though I clearly appreciate a metal bra and horned helmet as much as anyone.
Just about everything I know about the Ring Cycle, I learned from opera-comedian (yes, really) Anna Russell. She famously and regularly performed a retelling of the Ring’s plot, singing out where it was helpful to make a point. This might not sound funny, but you’re wrong. It’s very, very funny. It lasts around 20 minutes and I insist that you watch it here. Wagner’s plot is such that Russell feels compelled to regularly confirm that her audience is following all the intricacies of the incest, and at one point she stops short and deadpans a necessary caveat: “I’m not making this up, you know.”
The Ring is a series of four full-length operas with a continuous plot that runs through all 20 cumulative hours of performance. You’ll know this once you listen to Anna Russell. The first is Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), which opens under water in the Rhine, with three Rhinemaidens guarding a lump of magic gold. Over the course of the cycle, the gold gets stolen and turned into the titular ring that grants great power, there are lots of gods and Valkyries, etc. The gods build Valhalla, there’s intrigue, there are power struggles and there’s a genuinely surprising amount of incest. It’s a bona fide epic.
The final opera in the series is Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), which has a surprising, perverse ending. Brünnhilde sets a fire that burns up Valhalla, all the gods and the whole world. Russell rounds out her story:
It’s all burnt. Then the river Rhine overflows it’s banks…Remember the Rhine? And the waters come in over the ashes, and who do you think turns up next? The Rhinemaidens. So, they take their lump of gold—I mean the ring, which is of course their lump of gold—and they put it back where it came from. And after sitting through this whole operation, what do you hear? You hear [Russell sings the opening bars of Das Rheingold]. You’re exactly where you started twenty hours ago!
5) Verdi’s Il trovatore
Il trovatore (The Troubadour) is very famous, frequently mounted, musically beautiful and securely in the canon. But I can still remember learning the harrowing, harrowing plot. While deceptively a standard love triangle set in renaissance Spain, it’s much more upsetting.
Leonora lives at the Count di Luna’s court, and he wants to marry her. But she loves Manrico, a gypsy troubadour soldier. Manrico’s mother Azucena also has a part in the action. (Concerning “gypsies”: Yes, opera often can be pretty racist; some 19th-century concepts update worse than others. It’s important to acknowledge, at least, and, ideally, hope for more creative solutions to getting around the racism while keeping otherwise artistically valuable operas in the repertoire.)
In the first act, an officer kind of casually tells a story from Luna’s childhood, when his brother fell sick and the family blamed an old gypsy woman for having cursed the baby. So, they burnt the woman alive to teach her a lesson. It turns out, the old woman’s daughter is Azucena, and in retaliation, she kidnapped Luna’s sick baby brother. Later, the officer explains, “the half-charred bones of a child, still smoldering” were discovered in the same place Azucena’s mother had been killed.
It gets worse: In the second act, Azucena tells Manrico that, even though she’s raised him as her son, he is actually secretly Luna’s younger brother whom she kidnapped from the nursery. You see, she accidentally threw her own infant son into the fire while intending to throw the baby Luna to his fiery death. Oops. Then a lot of love triangle and military stuff happens and Manrico and Azucena end up imprisoned by Luna. Leonora agrees to marry Luna in exchange for saving her true love Manrico’s life and setting him free.
This brings us to the last few minutes of the opera, the scene in the video above. Thinking she has saved Manrico, Leonora poisons herself, finding the sweet release of death preferable to going through with the forced, loveless marriage. She goes to see Manrico, still imprisoned, and dies in his arms after a longer duet than one would think most poisons would allow. Luna then immediately has Manrico executed, like, right, right away, ignoring Azucena’s cries to stop. The moment Manrico is dead, Azucena looks at Luna and, with more smug satisfaction than is appropriate seconds after the murder of the man she raised as her son from infancy, she announces, “He was your brother!,” and then calls out to the ether, “Mother, you are avenged!” And the opera ends as Luna realizes he has to live with what he’s done.