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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Mad Scenes

In 2015 I presented a series of four Keys to Music programs under the general heading of Focus on Opera. These looked in turn at mad scenes, death scenes, love scenes and crowd scenes and spanned operas from a wide range of periods and composers. This first instalment covers music ranging from Henry Purcell to John Corigliano.


Opera is a vital part of European music culture and has been for more than 400 years. Telling a story through music - through vocal music - is a powerful way of enhancing drama and taking an audience on a journey.

In this article and the next three I want to focus on opera but not in a historical way. Rather, I want to focus on four aspects of story-telling which opera does particularly well and spend one post on each. In this one, it's mad scenes.

Now right from the beginning I have to say I'm not comfortable with this. Just as it was normal in times past to indulge in racial or gender stereotypes which are no longer acceptable, so the stigmatisation of mental illness is - thankfully - also starting to pass. We still have a long way to go before words like loony, bonkers and psycho are seen as the derogatory labels that they are, or before mental illness is really taken as seriously as physical illness. But we're getting better at it.

So now in the 21st century what are we to make of the ways in which opera has used mental instability as an excuse for glorious singing? Mad scenes were all the rage in early 19th century opera, but they were hardly new. Someone losing their reason was often a part of a story - just as it's a part of real life - but in opera this often meant that everyone stood around and watched them go mad while singing music that was simultaneously incredibly beautiful and unbelievably virtuosic; the sort of music no sane person would sing.

To be completely frank, I don't have an answer to this conundrum. There's no way my distaste of stigmatising mental illness is going to make me cut mad scenes from an opera I might conduct, but the tug between art and humanity is always a challenging one. I find the racial stereotyping of Jews distasteful in Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, but to cut that movement would be to deny that such stereotyping was ever there. And if we were to start removing from opera all examples of the mistreatment of women, we'd have very little opera left.

So in exploring some operatic mad scenes in this post, I want to do so from the point of view of admiring the music, and virtuosity of the singer brave enough to attempt such music.

In mad scenes it's nearly always a woman who is mistreated and who goes mad, and the most famous of all such characters is Lucia in Gaetano Donizetti's 1835 opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Unable to marry the man she loves, and forced to marry another, she murders her husband on their wedding night and returns to the celebrations covered in his blood and completely out of her mind. As with most mad scenes it completely stops the opera in its tracks, but the beauty of this scene lies in the way Donizetti has given the voice space to negotiate the most challenging vocal acrobatics. The famous pairing of the voice with the solo flute was, in the composer's original conception, a pairing with the even more haunting sound of the glass harmonica. This instrument was based on the principal of tuned wine glasses, with glass plates being rotated though a trough of water. Some specialists are adapting the glass harmonica for modern theatres so that the original concept can be experienced, but as a general rule the flute version is usually used nowadays.

Glass harmonica

While Dame Joan Sutherland made this role her own for decades in partnership with her husband, the conductor Richard Bonynge, I've decided to share here part of a live performance featuring Edita Gruberová. [listen]

Mad scenes were a popular form of musical expression long before Donizetti. A much earlier English example is Henry Purcell's stand alone setting of From silent shades in the early 1680s, a mad scene in the form of a song, sung by the character Bess of Bedlam. [listen] And Baroque opera occasionally saw characters lose their reason too, usually because of unrequited love. The most famous of these comes from Handel's opera Orlando, which premiered in London in 1733. The title role was one of seventeen major roles he created for the alto castrato Francesco Bernardi, known as Senesino. The part today is sung equally well by mezzo sopranos (as a so-called "pants role") and by countertenors. (I've conducted two productions of the opera, the first - in Melbourne - with a female mezzo and the second - in Perth - with a countertenor.)

At the end of the second act, Orlando loses his mind as a consequence of being rejected in love. He enters alone, and in a huge soliloquy unlike anything else in the repertoire of the time, hallucinates about going into the underworld and confronting monsters and furies. The mood swings wildly, ending with a truly disturbing gavotte. In one passage, Handel uses - for the first time in western music - the time signature of 5/8 to portray the rockiness of Charon's boat as the mad Orlando attempts to enter Hades. In this video from Zurich Opera, Orlando is sung by Marijana Mijanovic. [listen]

Nearly half a century later, the 24-year old Mozart had one of the biggest breakthroughs of his career with the commission to compose Idomeneo for the Munich court opera. Idomeneo is on a huge scale, and Mozart had some of the finest singers of the day in his cast. The Greek princess Elektra is in love with Idamante, but he is in in love with Ilia. At the end, when Idamante and Ilia are happily united, Elektra falls apart and sings a "rage aria" before her exit which is often called a mad scene.

This raises the question of what constitutes "madness", on stage or elsewhere. Taken at face value, the words of Elektra's aria describe anguish, anger and complete desolation; it's Mozart's music which makes us think she has lost her mind. Even though the libretto doesn't actually state that she takes her own life, it does make reference to a blade potentially ending her sorrows. Little wonder then that many opera directors have Elektra stab herself at the end of this tumultuous music. In this recording it's sung by Alexandrina Pendatchanska. [listen]

In the early 19th century - the era of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini - the mad scene became an integral part of many operas, and that of Lucia di Lammermoor, which we heard earlier, is simply the most famous. French opera of the period also revelled in the excuse to have time stand still while a solo singer displayed incredible virtuosity under the guise of madness.

Ambroise Thomas wrote his operatic treatment of Shakespeare's Hamlet in 1868. In Shakespeare's play, Ophelia has a relatively small part when compared to the huge demands of the title role, but pivotally she goes mad with grief at the death of her father, Polonius. Her subsequent suicide happens offstage, and we are made aware of it by the two gravediggers.

In the French opera libretto adapted from the play, which Thomas set to music, Ophelia was given a larger role, as the female lead opposite Hamlet, and her madness provided the perfect excuse for a mad scene. In fact, Paris had been in thrall to "Ophelia madness" since Harriet Smithson visited the city in 1827 and played Ophelia in a way which had little connection with Shakespeare's script but which gripped the public. This was the same Harriet Smithson with whom Hector Berlioz became infatuated and to whom he was later unhappily married.

So by 1868, a mad scene for Ophelia in any operatic treatment of the play would have been de rigeur in Paris. This is the scene in question from Thomas' opera, sung by June Anderson. [listen]

Ambroise Thomas

The title role of Hamlet is perhaps one of the most famous - whether in the play or in an opera - in which madness plays a part. The question of Hamlet's madness is the constant point of discussion in the play. Is he mad or is everything he does an aspect of his "antic disposition"?

The majority of famous mad scenes involve female characters but in the mid-20th century, Benjamin Britten showed right from the start of his operatic career that an unstable mind was just as credible in a male character. Peter Grimes, the title role in Britten's first opera, is a man out of step with his community and under constant suspicion of mistreating and murdering his apprentices. At the end of the third act, despite the kindness shown to him by the gentle school mistress, Ellen Orford, he snaps and agrees to the demand of Captain Balstrode that he commit suicide.

Grimes's final scene, where his mind seems to part company with reason, has become known as the mad scene from Peter Grimes. The tenor in this video from the Met in New York is Anthony Dean Griffey. [listen]

In Vincenzo Bellini's grand 1835 opera I puritani, religious extremism and a simple mistake lead to Elvira falling into a period of madness in Act 2, from which she recovers in time for the happy ending in Act 3. This was written in the same year which gave us Donizetti's blood-stained Lucia, the height of the mad scene craze in Italian opera, but Bellini's musical insanity is portrayed in far less garish - and perhaps more convincing - tones than Donizetti's. It's sung superbly here by Montserrat Caballé. [listen]

Australian soprano Jessica Pratt as Lucia di Lammermoor

Psychiatric diagnosis is a particularly difficult area of medical practice. If a person has a tumour, a runny nose or a broken leg these things can been seen and readily diagnosed. But mental illness needs to be assessed on behaviour and through longer processes of interview and discussion. So in opera, the line between anguish and true mental illness is notoriously vague, and many so-called "mad scenes" are simply examples of someone having a bad day rather than being truly mentally ill.

The scene in John Corigliano's 1991 opera The Ghosts of Versailles in which the ghost of Marie Antoinette recalls her own execution is often called a mad scene, but anyone recalling their own execution I think would have an excuse to - if you'll pardon the pun - lose their head. Similarly, extreme anguish such as that experienced by Azucena in Verdi's Il trovatore or the title character in Otello seem to border on what might be called madness. And Wozzeck, the title character in Alban Berg's famous opera, is a case of someone who is unbalanced and out of step with the world from start to finish. How we define Wozzeck's state of mind is tricky.

A scene from The Ghosts of Versailles (Metropolitan Opera, New York)

Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, could certainly be said to have been having a bad day on 19 May, 1536, the day of her execution on trumped up charges of adultery, incest and witchcraft. Donizetti wrote his operatic treatment of the Anne Boleyn story in 1830, five years before Lucia, and it ends with an aria for the title character right before she goes offstage to be beheaded.

This final aria, in which Anne calls down curses on Henry and his new queen, Jane Seymour, is often called the opera's mad scene, and it's true that it has been a vehicle for some of the great dramatic sopranos to display anguish bordering on madness. The problem is that we know from history that Anne Boleyn wasn't mad; her speech from the scaffold was measured, poised and noble. But never let the facts get in the way of a good operatic rage, I always say.

We'll end this collection of mad scenes with the end of Donizetti's Anna Bolena, in a video from the Met featuring Anna Netrebko. In my next post I'll explore operatic death scenes. [listen]

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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Jan 06, 2022

Great to have these back. Loved yesterdays. Hope 2022 is a gone for you.

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