Opera’s 12 most gripping last gasps: stabbings, suicides, strangulation and more!
Mozart – Don Giovanni
Lorenzo Da Ponte’s alternate title for his libretto to Don Giovanni was The Libertine Punished. Punished indeed: the licentious Don meets a terrifying fate complete with fire and brimstone, engulfed in flames as he’s dragged off to hell by the spectre of the Commendatore he killed at the beginning of the opera. What’s so fascinating about this death is what it says about the Don’s life: we’ve seen the elusive seducer escape from women and justice in a series of escapades, but when it comes to the crunch he confronts divine/demonic retribution with unrepentant defiance, having gone so far as to invite his supernatural avenger to sup with him and to grasp the stone guest’s chilling hand.
Don Giovanni’s downfall is made all the more thrilling by the crushing finality of Mozart’s thunderous D-minor chords. Then (in a scene sometimes omitted) the characters he has wronged gather to make their moral pronouncement: “This is the end of the evil-doer: his death is as bad as his life.” The librettist must have trembled in his boots when he heard the score: Don Giovanni is widely acknowledged to be a sort of autobiography of the author and his friend Casanova. Da Ponte, a priest, was no stranger to adultery and sexual conquests, opening a brothel with his mistress and being banished from Venice for “public concubinage and rapto di donna onesta” (abduction of a respectable woman).
If you like this death, try: Hindemith – Cardillac
Another dark anti-hero with a singular obsession meets his fate head-on; this time justice is dispensed by an angry mob. In this opera based on a story by ETA Hoffmann, the goldsmith Cardillac is so attached to his exquisite creations that he cannot bear to part with them, stabbing all who purchase a piece of jewellery from him so that he may retrieve his precious goods, even his daughter’s lover. Like Don Giovanni, he refuses to repent at death’s door.
Bizet – Carmen
In her famous habanera aria, Carmen describes love as un oiseau rebelle (a rebellious bird) but she may as well have been singing about herself. In the final act of Bizet’s opera, the untamable tease fearlessly confronts her jealous, unstable ex-lover Don José despite the warnings of her friend Frasquita Well aware of the dangers of enraging him, Carmen rejects José’s pleas, affirming her love for the bullfighter Escamillio and insisting that she cannot be untrue to herself and her own desires. At the end of this heated exchange, she throws down the ring José had given her and all hell breaks loose: he stabs her in a fit of passion.
Bizet’s musical depiction of the end of the line for his feisty heroine is genius in its poignancy: he alternates between the triumphant strains of her beloved toreador’s victory song, heard off-stage, and the ominous “fate” theme heard in Act 3 when Carmen first learns of her impending doom as her fortune is read.
If you like this death, try: Berg – Lulu
Here’s another femme fatale who lives outside society’s conventions and pays the price with violence at the hands of a deranged man. Her many admirers include a painter who cuts his own throat for her, an acrobat who blackmails her, a lesbian who helps her bust out of gaol and a doctor whom she accidentally shoots dead. Working as a prostitute, she meets her end at the hands of Jack the Ripper.
Massenet – Werther
Werther is one of those operas in which I find myself wishing the dying protagonist would hurry things along a bit and get it over with. The eponymous brooding poet spends most of the opera yearning, whining and contemplating suicide since the object of his affection, Charlotte, is first engaged and then married to another. He directs more than a few pathos-drenched hints about his state of mind at Charlotte, not lease asking her husband Albert to lend him some pistols. She rushes to be at his side and confess her true feelings as he takes most of the final act to expire. If only he could have contented himself with Charlotte’s younger sister Sophie, also in love with the miserable poet!
In 1887, Léon Carvalho, director of the Opéra-Comique, rejected Werther, telling Massenet it was too gloomy for his audiences. The opera was based on The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe, an autobiographical account of the German poet’s own romantic woes: in 1772 the 23-year-old writer fell in love with Charlotte Buff, who married Johann Christian Kestner. Around the same time a mutual friend, Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, shot himself over the love of a married woman with pistols belonging to Kestner.
Catalani – La Wally
The Italian composer Alfredo Catalani is something of a one-hit wonder, known today almost exclusively for the soaring soprano aria Ebben?… Ne andrò lontana from La Wally. It doesn’t help that the opera is almost never performed in its entirety, requiring the lovers to perish in a natural disaster. After a series of romantic misfires in a small Alpine village in Tyrol, the huntsman Haghenbach realises he loves Wally and tracks her to her refuge high in the mountains. After a tearful reconciliation Wally agrees to return to the town, but during their descent Haghenbach calls to her, setting off an avalanche that sweeps him away. In despair, Wally throws herself into the abyss.
If you like this death, try: Verdi Aida
There aren’t many natural disasters in opera, but there are a few in which the protagonists are buried alive. This is the fate of Aida’s star-crossed lovers from the opposing camps of Egypt and Ethiopia. Radames, commander of the Egyptian troops, is sentenced to death for revealing his battle plan to the Ethiopian slave Aida, a princess in her land. When Radames is sealed in a tomb, he discovers his beloved has snuck in to die there in his arms. As the final strains of their duet fade, we hear the Egyptian princess Amneris, Aida’s rival in love, kneeling above the tomb praying for peace for the condemned souls within.
Adams – The Death of Klinghoffer
This is one of the most traumatic and politically charged deaths in opera, which explains why Adams’s controversial 1991 masterpiece is seldom performed. The action takes place on the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro, which was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists in 1985. A Jewish passenger, Marilyn Klinghoffer, believes her wheelchair-bound husband Leon is safely stowed away in the sick bay while she remains up on deck. Even as she tells the other hostages of her husband’s resilience facing his own handicap, she doesn’t realise that they are moving inexorably towards the time terrorists have designated to make their first kill. As the clock strikes three, Klinghoffer is shot unceremoniously in the head. The hijacker Molqi takes the victim’s passport and utters the only spoken words in the opera: “American kaput.”
In the profoundly emotional scene in which Klinghoffer’s body and wheelchair are dumped overboard, a haunting aria reflects on the shocking events and violence that begets violence. What is so powerful about the opera, and what has so enraged its detractors, is that Adams refuses to position the ship’s innocent passengers and the attackers in a “good vs evil” framework; rather he shows both sides of the turmoil, even exploring the effect the killing has on reluctant insurgents. Musically, as the seconds tick away towards Klinghoffer’s doom, Adams creates a cacophony of extreme agitation, suspense and dread; by contrast, all is calm on the open sea, Mrs Klinghoffer unaware of the brutality of Leon’s final moments.
WARNING: This clip contains graphic violence and adult themes.
If you like this death try: Jake Heggie – Dead Man Walking
Another American opera tackling big themes in a true story, Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking ends with the final moments of death row inmate Joseph De Rocher, who raped and murdered two teens in Louisiana. De Rocher asks the parents of his victims for forgiveness, and with his last breath thanks his spiritual saviour Sister Helen for her guidance. His slowing breathing is the last thing audiences hear after he receives the lethal injection; the question of his redemption hanging thick in the air.
Leoncavallo – Pagliacci (Nedda)
“Verismo. Isn’t that what we had before Desperate Housewives?” read a comic strip I came across recently. Just as the TV show claims to, the opera genre deals with real people and real-life situations, but Leoncavallo’s tale of infidelity, sexual jealousy and murder in a band of traveling circus performers has the added interest of an extra layer: the deaths of Nedda and her lover Silvio take place in a play-within-a-play construction.
As the cuckold clown (think of his famous anguished melody, “Ridi, Pagliaccio“), Canio attempts to reclaim his dignity publicly mid-performance, re-living onstage the domestic drama that is unfolding in real life: Beppe/Harlequin is making love to Nedda/Colombine when Canio/Pagliaccio returns unexpectedly. As he grills his wife for the name of her lover, the lines between art and life blur, the audience riveted by the “performance”. It is only when Canio stabs her that the tragic truth of the situation is revealed in full view of a terrified crowd. She has refused to give up the name of her paramour in order to protect him from her husband’s wrath, but when Silvio rushes forward to help the dying Nedda he exposes himself to the clown’s vengeful blade. Makes Desperate Housewives seem rather dull, really.
If you like this death try: Verdi – Otello (Desdemona)
Still more killing of spouses… But this time the woman’s innocent.
Shostakovich – Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
Speaking of desperate housewives… Revenge is a dish best served cold, but in Shostakovich’s darkly comic opera it comes with a side of mushrooms. Having been caught in flagrante with the menial worker Sergey by her father-in-law Boris, Katerina decides to get her own back for years of cruelty, humiliation and harassment. When the old man demands his favourite meal of mushrooms, she laces it with rat poison. At first he praises Katerina’s cooking but then, as the poison takes effect, he calls for water and a priest, both of which he is laughingly denied.
Shostakovich intended Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk to be the first in a trilogy of feminist operas, but when Stalin publicly lambasted the composer for creating such an immoral work, it became clear there would be no hope of a return to the same themes. Shostakovich also dedicated Lady Macbeth to his new bride Nina Varzar: perhaps the wrong message…
WARNING: Clip contains nudity.
If you like this death, try Puccini – Tosca
Another young woman in a desperate situation murders her oppressor. Unlike Shostakovich’s Katerina, the religious Tosca displays remorse when she stabs the lecherous tyrant Scarpia.
Puccini – La Bohème
Mimì’s consumptive death in a Parisian garret is one of the most tragic in opera: she leaves this world too young, in the dead of winter, in circumstances that could have been avoided, but she slips away in the presence of the great love of her life, knowing that she, in turn, is loved. Her inconsolable lover Rodolfo falls on her lifeless body, accompanied by the orchestra’s final, ominous chords. The innocent, fragile Mimì has served as inspiration for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical RENT, whose S&M dancer Mimi Márquez dies from HIV complications.
Strauss – Elektra
There are plenty of deaths to choose from in this highly charged Greek tragedy but here’s the most remarkable, dramatically and musically. The crazed, clairvoyant Elektra is hell-bent on avenging the death of her father King Agamemnon, slain by her mother Clytemnestra and her mother’s lover. She eventually collaborates in matricide with her exiled brother Orestes, and in the throes of ecstasy and triumph – the full-blown orchestral score frantically heaves to and fro to keep up with her – she dances herself to death in front of horrified onlookers. Along with Salomé, Elektra is one of Strauss’s most disturbing creations.
Puccini – Madama Butterfly
Butterfly is the epitome of the frail, long-suffering heroine, an archetype Puccini often visited with female characters like the slave-girl Liù in Turandot. Here, knowing her American officer has abandoned her after years of awaiting his promised return, Butterfly takes her own life rather than return to her old profession as a geisha. In the final aria Con onor muore (“To Die With Honour”), her resolve underscored by ominous double basses, she solemnly prepares herself for jigai (the female version of hara-kiri), tearfully bidding her young son farewell and relinquishing the boy to the faithless Pinkerton and his Western wife Kate. Pinkerton’s cries of “Butterfly!” come too little, too late.
In this scene, I give extra brownie points to the Butterflies who stab themselves in the neck, but it is possible to depict her ritualised demise in an abstract way, as in the minimalist production shown below.
If you like this death, try Wagner – The Flying Dutchman
The redeeming love of a good woman: Senta throws herself off a cliff to a watery grave in order to prove her unwavering fidelity to the Dutchman, who doubted her vows. She made her point: her actions release the Dutchman and his ghost ship from the wretched curse that forced him to roam the seas eternally until he found someone of good wife material to love him unconditionally.
Purcell – Dido and Aeneas
Perhaps the most dignified death in opera, Dido’s gives us the famous lament When I am laid in earth. The proud queen of Carthage is mortally offended when her Trojan visitor and betrothed, Aeneas, reveals he must leave her to return to Troy at the behest of the gods. When he offers to stay she rejects him, considering the mere thought of abandoning an unforgivable betrayal. Spurned and alone, she arrives at the decision that “death must come when he is gone”. Dido’s tearful lady-in-waiting Belinda can only look on as the queen succumbs to death, a “welcome guest”. In a final, sorrowful chorus, With drooping wings, cupids appear in the clouds and scatter roses on Dido’s tomb.
The mode of death itself is rarely shown onstage, but in the original Virgil Aenead Dido prepares a pyre to burn Aeneas’s remaining possessions, including what would have been their marriage bed, and steps on as she sets it alight.
Poulenc – Dialogues des Carmélites
Set during the French Revolution and the subsequent Terror, Poulenc’s great philosophical meditation on death, faith and martyrdom follows the tragic fate of the nuns of the Carmelite convent, whose church and sanctuary is desecrated before they are led, one by one, to the scaffold. The chilling sound of the guillotine (yes, the score calls for a guillotine) punctuates one death after the next, yet the nuns meet their Maker as martyrs full of joy, awaiting the world to come. This grim climax is made all the more poignant by Sister Constance’s eerie Act One premonition that she and her friend Sister Blanche would die young, and on the same day.
An earlier loss to the convent foreshadows the mass execution: the Prioress’s deathbed scene is one of the most extended and realistic in the history of opera, traversing the full gamut of emotion and ending with a requiem.
If you like this death, try Halévy – La Juive
This grand French opera set in 15th-century Switzerland also deals with persecution – this time of the Jewish faith – and was hailed by Mahler as “one of the greatest operas ever created.” The goldsmith Eléazar’s daughter Rachel stands at the scaffold, refusing to convert to Christianity to save herself. In one of those terrific “foundling child” revelations, as Rachel is hurled into a cauldron of boiling water Eléazar admits to the prosecuting Cardinall that she was in fact the latter’s daughter, whom Eléazar had raised Jewish. He joins her in death. Talk about a cruel twist of fate…