Opera abounds in love duets. Here are three that define both their genre and their time. All three involve a man (a tenor, of course) in love, or in lust in the last example, with another man’s wife.

Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde were written about the same time – the late 1850s. They both had to overcome a lot of problems before they achieved their first performances and they both have passionate love duets in their second acts.

Tristan was considered a landmark in music. Ballo was just another great Verdi opera. In fact, nothing Verdi wrote achieved the iconic status granted many of his exact coeval’s operas. Wagner was the dominant intellectual force of the second half of the 19th century. But that was a long time ago and Verdi’s dictum that the only critic that counts is the box office has proven true.

Consider the performance histories of the two operas at the Met. Tristan has been performed 455 times since 1883, Ballo 297. But let’s look at 2000 to the present. The Met has staged Tristan 17 times, last in 2008. Ballo has appeared 38 times over that span with five more shows scheduled this season starting Thursday. The Verdi opera has nothing to recommend it to the discerning listener save genius. It is as close to perfection as an opera can be. It’s to opera what Hank Aaron was to baseball. Hammerin’ Hank never hit 50 home runs in a season. But he kept hitting a lot of them for more than two decades, eventually reaching a total no non-juiced player has. Ballo is great from start to finish even though it doesn’t have a tune that the non-opera going public would recognize unlike many of Verdi’s other operas.

Let’s start with chaste love. In Un Ballo in Maschera, the tenor is in love with the soprano. That’s standard for opera. He’s either the King of Sweden or the governor of colonial Massachusetts. The censors initially objected to a king being murdered onstage. Accordingly, Verdi made him a governor. When this objection faded Verdi expressed no desire to move the locale of the opera back to Sweden. Nevertheless, most modern productions (including the Met’s) set the opera in Sweden. The soprano, Amelia, is married to Renato (aka Count Anckarström) the king’s best friend and biggest supporter.

Amelia is tormented by her love for the king. She’s wandering around looking for herbs that she’s been told will cure her guilty love when she’s confronted by the king. He overheard a witch send her in search of this remedy in the opera’s first act. They express their unconsummated love in a rapturous duet which explodes with passion and agitation. There is nothing like this duet in all of Italian opera in it’s outpouring of raw passion and boiling emotion. Of course, all this ends badly as do all passionate love affairs in opera.

This recording of the duet was made in 1940 during a performance at the Met. The two principals are Zinka Milanov and Jussi Björling who with passage of two thirds of a century seem almost god-like. Teco io sto

Wagner’s lovers are not looking for a magic potion to quench their forbidden desire. Rather, they are the victims of a draft that has turned them from enemies to lovers who prefer death to restraint. In fact they embrace death. The beautiful music aside, it’s pretty morbid. Their’s is an exclusively Teutonic preference. In the second act of Tristan und Isolde the two lovers are so entranced with each other that they fail to realize that night is ending, despite the warnings of Isolde’s maid Brangäne, that they are caught in flagrante delicto. Thus, their love is consummated, but interrupted. The music offers the most graphic description of what’s going until the third duet described below.

This duet, commonly called ‘Liebesnacht’ (night of love) is performed by another pair of operatic gods – Kirsten Flagstad and Lauretz Melchior. Flagstad was without equal in the Wager repertory, at least until Birgit Nilsson came along. Melchior has no peer among the heldentenors.  This studio recording was made in 1938. The part of Brangäne delivering her unheeded warning is also sung by Flagstad. The recording has a concert ending which doesn’t depict the the interruption and discovery of the lovers as in a staged performance. Liebesnacht

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) wrote his second opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, when he was 24. It was first performed in 1934 to great acclaim. All was well until 1936 when Stalin attended a performance. The monstrous mass murderer was offended by the wild abandon and parody of the piece and particularly by the “love duet” with its graphic orchestral description of sexual intercourse. The next day Shostakovich was denounced in an anonymous article in Pravda, perhaps by Stalin. The opera disappeared. A quarter of a century later it resurfaced in a bowdlerized version. Today it is done as its composer intended. But Shostakovich never wrote another opera.

Thus added to Stalin’s crimes is the murder of 20th century opera. Had the composer written more operas, as he intended before being denounced, we doubtless would have had a succession of masterpieces for the lyric stage. But we probably would have had less symphonies and string quartets. Forty years after Shostakovich’s death it’s clear that he was a giant of art. In my view, no other 20th century composer reaches his level of expression, power, and variety of form.

Lady Macbeth is a wild commentary on the oppression of the poor, bureaucratic ineptitude, the subjugation of women, and the hopelessness of Russian life. In its own unique way, it is a continuation of Boris Godunov. It uses an orchestra that sweeps its audience away in rivers of brilliant sound. The last act which follows three acts full of parody reaches a shattering climax. The opera’s heroine, Katerina Iszmailova murders her father-in-law, her husband, and at the opera’s conclusion her rival for the affections of her lover, opera’s biggest lout and sleazeball, Sergei. She also commits suicide simultaneous to the final murder. Yet Shostakovich makes her into an object of pity forced by a brutal world into the crimes she commits.

This duet, one observer called it pornophony, occurs at the end of the third scene of the first act. Sergei sneaks into Katerina’s bedroom while her impotent husband is away and forces himself on her. She is bored, lonely, and sexually frustrated and soon gives in to him. She falls in love with him. But to him she is merely an object. Pay particular attention to the trombones in this excerpt. That’s probably gratuitous advice as they can hardly be ignored. This performance is taken from the Met’s run of the opera last Fall. The singers are  Eva-Maria Westbroek and Brandon Jovanovich. Lady Macbeth 1st act duet

So where can we go from here. It seems that the love duet has reached its outer limit. But perhaps a genius will appear and think of something new.