Donizetti’s Lucia Di Lammermoor is the poster girl for operatic lunacy. She’s been going mad for close to two centuries with no letup in sight. She should be an honorary member of the American Psychiatric Association; she’d fit right in. She’s probably got her own ICD 10 code. But opera has many other examples of madness, if you allow that the art form is capable of anything else. Accordingly, here are 10 mad scenes not by Donizetti – who unsurprisingly died mad himself.
Some of the excerpts below are YouTube videos. Since they are as inconstant as virtue, I’ve placed a link to an alternative site which will allow the viewer to see the video even if its Youtube incarnation vanishes.
First, Donizetti’s contemporary competitor, Vincenzo Bellini. Described by Heinrich Heine as a sigh in pumps, Bellini was the unchallenged master of the long melody. Elvira, the heroine of the Sicilian composer’s last opera I Puritani goes bonkers in the second act. The cause is the typical one in opera – inconstant love. Or at least that’s what she thinks. Everything gets sorted out by the opera’s end and Elvira’s sanity is regained. Qui la Voce … Vien Diletto is sung to great effect by the Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu.
You don’t have to be a soprano to go crazy in opera, even a bass can do it. Sam Ramey was an extraordinary artist capable of the most florid singing as well as mastering the intensely dramatic roles written for a bass. Semiramide was Rossini’s last Italian opera. It was written just before he relocated to Paris. The opera requires a bass with the agility of a coloratura soprano. Since such a singer is also as rare as virtue the opera typically does not succeed unless you have a Sam Ramey available. Fortunately he was in his prime in 1990 when the Met brought back the opera. This year’s appearance of the opera at the Met was less successful than its 90s stagings. Assur is the bad guy in the work. He goes bonkers shortly before the opera ends. But he recovers just in time to be arrested by the opera’s hero, Arsace played by a mezzo soprano, who arrests him after he (Arsace) has killed his mother. Don’t ask, it’s an opera.
Verdi’s Macbeth has two mad scenes. The Sleepwalking Scene is by far the better known. But earlier in the opera Macbeth has a bout of temporary insanity unlike the permanent state that later afflicts his wife and presages her death. It happens at the party just after Banquo (Banco in the opera) has been murdered by Macbeth’s hitmen. The latter sees Banquo’s ghost which appropriately drives him mental, especially as no one else sees the ghost. This version features Mara Zampieri and Renato Bruson as opera’s most dysfunctional couple. The late Giuseppe Sinopoli wields a powerful baton. The scene shows Verdi’s unparalleled ability to meld drama and melody. Macbeth Act 2 scene 3
Verdi’s second Shakespeare based opera, Otello, appeared four decades after the first version of Macbeth. His skill had gotten even better as the years passed. The end of the third act depicts Otello’s descent into total madness pushed by Iago’s insinuations about Desdemona’s supposed infidelity. By the time the curtain falls Otello is insensate on the ground. This excerpt is from Jonas Kaufmann’s first go at Italian opera’s most daunting dramatic tenor role. He’s joined by Maria Agresta and Marco Vratogna. Antonio Pappano leads the Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus in this 2017 performance. Pappano’s baton is flaccid rather than powerful and one of Verdi’s most potent ensembles drags a bit. Otello Act 3 finale
Another Shakespeare based opera is Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet. The Met brought it back in 2010 after 115 years of neglect as a star turn for Simon Keenlyside. He was great in the title role, but the opera was just a tired vehicle. Of course, as in Shakespeare’s play Ophelia goes mad – Ophélie in the opera. No one was better at going crazy than Maria Callas, even if if the music was weak as it is here. Callas Mad Scene from Hamlet
Another bass who loses his reason is Boris Godunov. This a different type of madness from Rossini’ unstable bass. Searing intensity rather than ornamentation is at its core. In Act 2 Boris hallucinates (Hallucination or ‘Clock’ Scene) thinking that the spectre of the dead Dmitriy is reaching out to him. Addressing the apparition, he denies his responsibility for the child’s murder: “Begone, begone child! I am not thy murderer… the will of the people!” He collapses, praying that God will have mercy on his guilty soul. Boris Christoff was the best exponent in the second half of the last century of Mussorgsky’s guilty Tsar. Boris Godunov Mad Scene
Now for some 20th century lunatics. One could easily argue that all of Strauss’ Elektra is one gigantic mad scene. The final scene of this one act opera is from a film by Götz Friedrich conducted by Karl Böhm. Elektra is Lyonie Rysanek and Chrysothemis is Catarina Ligendza.
Alban Berg’s Wozzeck is returning to the Met next season. This opera is another one full of lunatics. The title character is driven mad by all the other crazies that inhabit Berg’s opera. Completely out of his mind he wades into a pond and drowns just before the opera ends. Berg was the only composer to use the 12 tone method successfully, at least in my opinion. The reason for his success is that he didn’t always stick to the atonal system and even more importantly he was very gifted. In this video Toni Blankenheim is the maddened soldier. The late baritone was noted for his work in Berg’s two operas.
Peter grimes is by far the most performed, and the best, of Benjamin Britten’s operas. The Canadian tenor Jon Vickers was renowned for his interpretation of Britten’s demented, and more, fisherman. I saw him as Grimes twice. He was riveting in the role. Naturally, Britten said he didn’t care for Vicker’s impersonation. A case where the composer clearly doesn’t know what’s best for his work. Grimes goes mad near the opera’s conclusion.
Finally, there’s a mad scene in John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles. It received its world premiere at the Met in 1991. It’s been done several times since. The Glimmerglass festival is doing it this Summer. The first performance is July 13. The mad scene is given to Queen Marie Antoinette who can’t get over her execution. It’s an opera about ghosts which is why she sings caput intactus. Teresa Stratas is the queen. She played this role in the Met prima.
Well, I could go on a lot longer, but it would be madness to do so.