Death in opera is a frequent event. But there aren’t that many operas in which everyone goes to the final reward. I’m defining everyone as all of the principal roles. Here are five. I’m sure if I dug a little deeper or thought a little more effectively that I could find more. Addition to this short list from readers are welcome. They’re in chronological order.
Berlioz’ The Damnation of Faust (1846) is not an opera. According to its author it’s a ‘dramatic legend’, whatever that is. Even so, it’s often staged and done as an opera. The Met has it on its roster for next season. The work has only four solo parts; one is a small role, another is the Devil who can’t die, leaving just Faust and Marguerite. The former goes to hell while the latter goes to heaven and in that order. Faust and Méphistophélès ride on horseback to the abyss into which Faust is hurled followed by pandemonium in which the lesser devils sing in a language of Berlioz’ own invention. Then Marguerite is saved and welcomed into heaven.
Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète (1849) was a huge success when it first appeared in Paris. It remained popular during the rest of the 19th century, but mostly disappeared during the first half of the next. More recently it has made a bit of a comeback. It received 25 performance at The Met during the 70s, mostly as a vehicle for Marilyn Horne. It’s been 40 years since the New York house heard it. Based on the career of John of Leiden it has a complicated plot that leaves its audience uncertain as to Jean’s (French for John which in turn is English for Johan) motives in morphing from a village lad to a prophet claiming divinity. His country sweetheart, Berthe, who hates the prophet kills herself at the end of Act 5 scene 1 when she discovers that her erstwhile love is Jean le prophète. The act’s second scene finds everyone locked in a room where they all burn to death.
Wagner’s conclusion of his final Ring opera, Götterdämmerung (1874), likely was stimulated by the kill everybody end of the Meyerbeer just discussed. Hagen kills both Siegfried and Gunther. Siegfried’s body is brought to the Gibichung palace where Brunnhilde rides her horse into the dead hero’s funeral pyre. What a horse is doing in a palace and why a funeral pyres is also there is not explained. No wonder the building catches fire, then the Rhine overflows its banks. Valhalla also catches fire (I suspect arson) killing all the gods and heroes. Wet or fried, everybody but the Rhinemaidens is dead. The world has ended and everything is as it was before the cycle began; except for the audience, they’re a lot older. Immolation scene
Everyone knows the story of Samson and Delilah. Saent-Saëns’ opera was first performed in 1877, in German! It’s the composer’s only opera to enter the standard repertory. In this version Placido Domingo brings down the house.
Puccini kills off his the main characters in Tosca (1900) one at a time. The first to go is the nefarious and abusive police commissioner Baron Scarpia. The title character, who should be the poster woman for the Me Too Movement, plants a knife in Scarpia’s chest as he rushes to her with the intention to commit rape. The bad baron dies in the Palazzo Farnese. Scarpia’s death
Cavaradossi is the next to go. He’s on top of the Castel Sant’Angelo and is the victim of the fake mock execution that everyone except Tosca knows is for real. Cavaradossi’s death
Finally, Tosca figures out that the guns were loaded with bullets not blanks. She’s consumed with grief and anger, but before she can go completely mad Scarpia’s henchmen come rushing up the stairs to the castle’s roof. Tosca takes the only way out by leaping to her death (or mattress) bringing Puccini’s perfect thriller to a shattering, in every sense of the word, conclusion. Tosca’s death
In Tosca, of course, only the three principals die. The rest of Rome, Italy, and the world is still breathing. I saw a production of the opera that took a broader view of who dies. It was mounted by the New York City Opera quite a while back. They set the piece in fascist Italy and showed most of Rome dead, including the Sacristan from Act 1, on a stage littered with corpses. The poor guy, not only did he have to die an untimely death – but he also had to hang around for a couple of extra hours just to be a dead body. Such is art.