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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Death Scenes

In 1987, Peter Conrad, an Australian-born academic now based in the UK, published a book called A Song of Love and Death: The Meaning of Opera. Quite apart from its contents - and it's an excellent read - the book's title summarises opera pretty well. Love and Death.

As I get older I realise more and more that art in all its forms - from painting, sculpture, music and literature to television, film, multimedia games and pop music - is almost always about love and/or death. Art reflects, explores, enhances and magnifies the things we experience, the things we remember and the things we fear. It strikes a chord with us because it's about us.

In this series of articles I'm looking at opera from four different perspectives. In my previous post I looked at operatic mad scenes, that peculiar, bizarre, yet beautiful way in which opera has treated the outsider afflicted with mental instability. In this instalment I want to look at the way opera treats death, a subject which itself could run to four posts - maybe forty posts - if I let it.

I'm amazed by the psychology which demands that death in opera, something which is very common, be treated beautifully. Not all operatic deaths are beautiful, of course, as this article will show. Yet death combined with singing - a physical impossibility in the real world - is something we accept because the singing magnifies the universal sensation that death will come to us all, and yet somehow makes it bearable at the same time.

As told by Virgil in the Aeneid, Dido, Queen of Carthage, dies when she is abandoned by her lover, the Trojan prince Aeneas. Henry Purcell's miniature operatic setting of the story, composed in the 1680s, climaxes in Dido's death scene, with one of the most famous arias in the English language. Fascinatingly, the libretto doesn't state how she dies; it's assumed she dies of grief, although there's plenty of scope for a moment of suicide once she stops singing. However she dies, few women in opera have died more beautifully, and it's sung beautifully here by Barbara Bonney. [listen]

Grozer: The Death of Dido (1796)

"Beauty" is not a word which immediately springs to mind when contemplating the subject matter of Shostakovich's shattering opera of 1932, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. It was a work which changed the course of the composer's career, bringing him into direct conflict with Stalin, the Party, and almost the entire Soviet artistic world. It's a opera which led to him being in fear for his life.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1950)

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is a gritty portrayal of a woman driven to murder and adultery by the sheer emptiness of her life. She's eventually abandoned and dies horribly. In setting this story to music, Shostakovich brought to the fore not only his superb technique and creative genius, but the reality of his everyday life. And while there are several deaths in the opera, the scene in which Katerina murders Boris, her father-in-law, with poisoned mushrooms is perhaps the most notorious.

Katerina's marriage is loveless and childless. Boris has caught her in bed with another man and publicly beaten him. Now, wanting to take Katerina to bed himself, he orders her to make him some food. She brings him mushrooms laced with rat poison, resulting in a truly horrible death. It's rather a long and violent scene; this is just the end, where he dies. [listen]

Some of the most famous Italian operas in the repertoire contain some of the most famous operatic death scenes. Tragedies were staple fare in Italian opera of the 19th and early 20th centuries. We only have to think of the works of Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini to realise how prevalent death scenes - and particularly female death scenes - are in the artform.

All but two of Giuseppe Verdi's operas are serious and most contain deaths. The later operas, like Aïda and Otello, have death scenes which stand apart (suffocating in a tomb in Aïda; being murdered by your husband in a jealous rage in Otello), but the earlier works are no less gripping, even if they verge on what we might now regard as the sentimental.

In La traviata - premiered in 1853 - the free-living courtesan Violetta shocked the opera's first audiences because she was one of them; a contemporary, someone they would recognise in the street, if not in the theatre. Her death of tuberculosis is no surprise - the illness is suggested in the prelude, and made explicit in the first scene - but the death when it comes is encased in music of such poignant beauty that after a good performance there are few dry eyes in the house, even today. [listen]

Verdi's successor as the foremost composer of Italian opera was Giacomo Puccini. Again, almost all his operas contain deaths and some are utterly shattering. Tosca leaping to her death off the ramparts of the Castel Sant'Angelo immediately comes to mind, in an opera where all three of the leading characters die horribly (Tosca murders Scarpia with a knife, and Cavarodossi is shot a by firing squad). And Butterfly's suicide, choosing death rather than dishonour, is one of the most powerful operatic deaths of all time, by virtue of Puccini's music which takes no prisoners.

But I find the death of Mimi in La bohème, one of Puccini's earlier works, to be particularly moving. I think this is because she dies in silence, while the others in the room think she is sleeping. Only gradually, one by one, do they realise she has died, with the shattering cries of her lover Rodolfo bringing the opera to a heart-breaking end. [listen]

La bohème was written in 1895 and premiered in 1896. In Russia only a few years earlier, in 1890, Tchaikovsky composed his second-last opera, The Queen of Spades.

Arguably his greatest opera (and I think it is his greatest opera), The Queen of Spades is centred on the obsession of a young nobleman, Hermann, who is desperate to find out the secret of three cards which would ensure his success at gambling. The old Countess, guardian of Liza, the girl Hermann loves, knows the secret but refuses to share it.

Just as Mimi dies silently, so does the Countess. Hermann accosts her in her bedroom as she is preparing for bed. So violently does he demand to know the secret of the cards that she suffers a seizure and dies. The horror of the situation is made clear in Hermann's increasingly violent ravings, and in the music Tchaikovsky provided for the orchestra.

Hearing the disturbance, Liza bursts in to find Hermann in the Countess's bedroom, and is horrified to discover the old lady is dead. Hermann raves, not about the death of the Countess, but about the fact that he will never know the secret of the three cards, making it clear to Liza that it's the cards, and not her, which really matter to him. She casts him out and falls sobbing on the Countess's body as the scene ends.

Hermann is a hugely taxing role, written for Nikolay Figner, one of the most famous tenors in Russia in Tchaikovsky's day. Liza was written for his wife, Medeya, and they each had a major triumph when the opera premiered in St Petersburg in December, 1890. [listen]

Nikolay and Medeya Figner with Tchaikovsky (1890)

A Russian opera with one of the most famous of all death scenes was composed a few years before The Queen of Spades. Modest Mussorgsky was the wild man of Russian music in the late 19th century, with a personality and a style of composition which shocked his contemporaries. Boris Godunov, his only completed opera, is considered his masterpiece, and the title role is one of the greatest ever conceived for the bass voice. When Boris dies in the final act, racked by guilt and seeing visions, Mussorgsky gave him this incredible music in which he bids farewell to his son, preparing him to rule in his place, and begging God for mercy. This extraordinary video comes from 1956, with the great Boris Christoff singing the title role. [listen]

The death of Boris Godunov, scene from the premiere production at the Mariinsky Theatre (1874)

Opera being what it is, there are so many examples of death scenes I could have included in this survey but time doesn't permit. My list included Verdi's Otello, Massenet's Werther and Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer, just to give you an idea of where my mind was taken in contemplating this subject. But one scene I had to include, not least because of the contrast between the innocence of the victims and the horror of their deaths. It's an opera which had a profound effect on its composer, who suffered a nervous collapse during its composition.

Composed in the mid-1950s, The Dialogues of the Carmelites is one of Francis Poulenc's greatest achievements. It's based on true events which took place in the 1790s, during the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution, in which a group of Carmelite nuns is sent to the guillotine for refusing to renounce their vocation.

There is in fact a death in the first of the opera's three acts, a horrific, terrifying death experienced by the old Prioress of the convent who, despite her years of devotion to God, believes in her delirium that God has abandoned her. But it's the end of the third act, when the nuns are sent to the guillotine singing a hymn to the Virgin, that I want to share with you and use to end this survey.

A scene from the Metropoltan Opera's production of The Dialogues of the Carmelites

The music of this scene is instantly recognisable as Poulenc. The relentless tread of the bass, the dark beauty of the upper lines in the orchestra, all entwining us in the horror of the situation. And as the nuns climb the scaffold and walk into the wings, their voices are reduced one by one as each fall of the blade is clearly heard. The crowd watching from below adds to the richness of the texture, reminding us that Poulenc was also a great composer of choral music.

Audio recording: [listen]

Video recording: [listen]

We take a far more positive turn next time, looking at operatic love scenes.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in December, 2015.

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