Given the title of this site, I can’t explain why it took me so long to cover this subject. Below are 10 operas in which physicians appear. Their role in each opera ranges from important to miniscule.
Dr Bartolo is in both Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. In the former he’s a secondary character. The Mozart/Da Ponte opera is based on the second of Beaumarchais’ three Figaro plays. In Act 1 Dr. Bartolo arrives with Marcellina, his old housekeeper. Figaro had previously borrowed a large sum of money from her, and, in lieu of collateral, had promised to marry her if unable to repay at the appointed time; she now intends to enforce that promise by suing him. Bartolo, seeking revenge against Figaro for having facilitated the union of the Count and Rosina (in The Barber of Seville, the first Figaro play), agrees to represent Marcellina pro bono, and assures her, in comical lawyer-speak, that he can win the case for her (aria: “La vendetta” – “Vengeance”). Their plans fall apart in the third act when it is revealed that Figaro is Raffaello, the long-lost illegitimate son of Bartolo and Marcellina.
Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816) also wrote an opera based on Beaumarchais’ first play – 1782. His The Barber of Seville was quite popular until Rossini’s version appeared. This sprightly quintet is from Act 3. The Count disguised as ‘Alonzo’, a supposed pupil of Don Basilio, the music master, meets Rosina and gives her a music lesson. Basilio ignorant of the Count’s plan appears, but is bribed to leave. Figaro shaves Bartolo while the lovers plan their escape.
Rossini’s Barber appeared just a few months before Paisiello’s death. It’s premiere was one of opera’s great catastrophes. Paisiello and his supporters considered the opera as an affront to his earlier effort. Nevertheless, the second performance was a triumph and The Barber became and remains the most popular comic opera yet written. In Act 1 Bartolo sings A un dottor della mia sorte (A doctor of my class). It’s one of the best basso buffo arias in the repertory. It’s sung by Fernando Corena, the best comic bass of his time. Interestingly, in none of the operas in which Dr Bartolo appears is there any indication that he actually practices medicine.
Donizetti has two operas in the standard repertoire that have doctors in them. The first, L’elisir d’amore was initially performed in Milan in 1832. Dr Dulcamara sells cheap red wine a cure-all for anything including unrequited love, hence the opera’s title. Dulcamara’s remedy was probably as effective as any nostrum of the time. In his entrance aria Udite, udite, o rustici (Listen, listen, o peasants) he extols the powers of his remedy. Sesto Bruscantini is Dulcamara – from a 1981 Met performance.
The composer’s other physician, apparently a real one in this instance, is Dr Malatesta (Dr Headache) in Don Pasquale. It along with Rossini’s Barber and L’elisir are the three most popular examples of opera buffa. Pasquale is also is the last great work in this genre. First performed in 1843 at La Scala it was an immediate hit and has remained so ever since. Ernesto (tenor) has refused the woman that his uncle Don Pasquale (bass) had found for him, and as a result is to be disinherited. Ernesto declares his devotion to the young – but poor – widow Norina. In view of Ernesto’s determination, Don Pasquale decides to marry in old age to produce his own heir, and anxiously awaits the arrival of his physician, Dr. Malatesta (baritone); His doctor is determined to teach Don Pasquale how foolish he is being, but has been pretending to search for a suitable bride. Malatesta, confronted with Pasquale’s impatience, mutters that he is a buffoon, but proceeds to describe the attributes of the bride-to-be, Bella siccome un angelo – (Beautiful like an angel). The baritone is the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky.
Verdi has three doctors, none of whom has a big part. Dr Grenvil appears at the beginning and end of the last act of La Traviata. He tells Violetta that her tuberculosis will soon kill her. He returns with the elder Germont just before she dies.
In Act 3 scene 2 of La Forza Del Destino Alvaro is wounded. He’s taken away on a stretcher. After Carlo who’s been looking for him with murderous intent ever since Alvaro accidently killed Carlo’s father has just figured out his identity, a surgeon appears to announced that Alvaro will live. Carlo is overjoyed that he will now get the opportunity to kill him.
The start of Verdi’s final opera Falstaff is set in the Garter Inn. Dr. Caius bursts into Sir John Falstaff’s room accusing him of unseemly behavior the previous night. He further accuses Falstaff’s two henchmen, Bardolph and Pistol, of having robbed him while he was drunk. Unable to obtain reparations, Dr. Caius leaves in a fury. This excerpt is from a 1937 performance under Arturo Toscanini’s direction at the Salzburg Festival. Alfredo Tedeschi is Dr Caius. Mariano Stabile sings the title role.
In the second act of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann the satanic Dr Miracle who attended Crespel’s wife during her fatal illness returns to offer his services to his ill daughter Antonia. Demand is better than offer. Dr Miracle is the devil or his first mate. He eventually returns and forces her to sing herself to death. This terzett is his encounter with Crespel while Hoffmann listens unobserved by the other two. The singers are Placido Domingo, Nicola Ghiuselev, and Gwinne Howell. Interestingly, the Met did the Antonia act during the 50s as the third act rather than the second as is now the rule. I think the way the Met used to place it a better arrangement. Thee intensely dramatic writing that characterizes the Antonia act seems a fitting conclusion to Hoffmann’s stories.
Berg’s Wozzeck has a doctor who presages the Nazi doctors of two decades later. In Act 1 scene 4 The Doktor scolds Wozzeck for not following his instructions regarding diet and behavior; they’re experiments. But when the Doctor hears of Wozzeck’s mental aberrations, he is delighted and congratulates himself on the success of his experiment. In the video below Wozzeck is Máté Sólyom-Nagy. The Doktor is Vazgen Gazaryan. He also appears in Act 2 scene 2 when he rushes by the Captain in the street, who urges him to slow down. The Doktor then proceeds to scare the Captain by speculating about what afflictions he may have. When Wozzeck comes by, they insinuate that Marie is being unfaithful to him. This suggestion eventually results in Marie’s murder by Wozzeck.
There doubtless are other operatic physicians or wanna be docs, but this is all I could think of without doing a lot of research. If you can have of other examples list them in the comments section.