Here are 11 opera villains – nine from Italian operas (Mozart’s an honorary Italian), the remaining two from Russian works. In making these choices I’ve excluded supernatural characters like the various depictions of the devil. I’ve also disregarded all German operas as it’s too hard to tell the villains from the heroes. The most prominent bad guys in French opera are demonic in one way or another – eg, Faust and Tales of Hoffmann. I’ve also ignored comic villains.
I’ll start with Verdi. Macbeth yields a twofer. Both Mr and Mrs Macbeth are villains of first rank. He’s a murderer and she’s more than an accomplice. He at least meets his well deserved end with a modicum of dignity. She goes mad on stage and dies away from the audience leading to Macbeth’s famous declaration: “It [life] is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”In Piave’s Italian it is: “La vita… che importa?… E’ il racconto d’un povero idiota; Vento e suono che nulla dinota!”
Verdi’s depiction of the Sleepwalking Scene is up to the original’s standard. Leontyne Price is the soprano on this recording. Though renowned for her Verdi roles, she never sang this role in performance.
Macbeth meets his end after singing like an angel before being dispatched by Macduff. In Pieta, rispetto, amore he laments that his life will end without mercy, respect, or love. Why he even imagines he might deserve such adornments of age is impossible to say. The baritone is Leonard Warren who was the Met’s first Macbeth. This recording was made from the broadcast of the opera’s first run by the company. Warren is in stupendous voice.
The Duke in Rigoletto is a favorite of leading tenors. He has three arias, a fine duet, and the lead into the great quartet in the last act. But underneath all the attractive music Verdi has assigned him is a monster. He’s a rapist and a murderer. He abuses his power to the fullest. He has no redeeming characteristics. The only time he shows any warm human emotions is when he laments the loss of the latest girl he’s after – Rigoletto’s teenage daughter Gilda. She’s been abducted by his courtiers. When they tell him she’s in the next room. He rushes off and rapes her. Ella mi fu rapita!…Parmi veder le lagrime is sung before he realizes what’s happened to her. Giuseppe Di Stefano is the tenor in this 1950 “live” recording at the San Francisco Opera..
Iago in Verdi’s Otello is as close to the devil as a human can get. He says as much in his Credo in un Dio crudel (I believe in a cruel God) shortly after the start of Act 2. He even calls himself a demon. He lacks credible cause for his plot to destroy Otello. But that’s the point. He’s so bad that he doesn’t need a reason. The baritone is Ettore Bastianini. There are a few more Verdi villains, such as the marvelously named Wurm in Luisa Miller and Paolo in Simon Boccanegra that I could have included, but they are not leading roles.
A study for Iago might be Barnaba in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. Arrigo Boito who wrote the libretto for Otello also wrote the book for the Ponchielli potboiler. He was so embarrassed about the wild libretto that he rearranged the letters of his name and took credit for the libretto as Tobia Gorrio. He must have been short of cash when he accepted the commission. Barnaba is a spy who is guilty of a litany of bad behaviors. At the opera’s end after the heroine has taken poison rather than submit to his sexual demands he screams as she is dying that the previous evening he killed her mother. O monumento occurs at the end of Act 1. It accompanies his written denunciation to the Venetian Inquisition of the tenor and the mezzo – unusually the tenor is in love with the mezzo rather than the soprano. Robert Merrill is the baritone. Recorded in performance at the Met.
Don Giovanni suffers from the curse of satyriasis. Leporello lists the florid details in his Catalogue Aria. But he’s an accomplice. His master is the true villain. The opera is subtle, complex, and beloved by musicologists – but there’s no escaping the title character’s mistreatment of women. Freud had him in mind when he quipped that any man who can’t find what he’s looking for in 1,000 women (according to Leporello the number exceeds 2,000) is looking for a man. Despite the Don’s prominence in the opera, he has no big aria. The closest he gets to one is the Champagne Aria: Fin ch’han dal vino. It’s in Act 1 scene 3. It lasts less than 90 seconds. The Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień sings the energetic piece in praise of the CNS effect of wine. The Don ends in hell which makes the rest of the cast very jolly. The operas final scene was cut after the first performance of the opera in Prague. After an absence of a century or so it returned and now always is done. All are glad the Don is where he belongs and announce plans for the rest of their lives. Don Giovanni final scene
Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov has more versions than a teenager has excuses for ignoring his homework. But at its core it’s about the illegal seizure of power. Boris at least shows remorse over the murder of the legitimate heir to the Russian throne – Dmitry. In the Clock Scene the chiming of a clock makes him hallucinate the spectre of the dead Dmitry. The great Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff gives an overpowering reading of the scene.
Baron Scarpia the chief of police in Puccini’s Tosca; he’s corrupt in every conceivable sense. Torture, murder, rape – there all in his armamentarium. At the start of Act 2 he calls Tosca è un buon falco! (Tosca is a good falcon!). He anticipates Angelotti the escaped former Consul of the Roman Republic on the scaffold, Tosca’s lover Mario hanging from a noose, and Tosca unwillingly in his arms. Of course, events don’t go as he planned. Tosca put a dinner knife into his chest. The baritone is Giangiacomo Guelfi.
Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is a first degree wretch. He “marries” a 15 year old girl, impregnates her, and then leaves. He returns three years later on a destroyer with his real wife to claim his Japanese child causing his mother to kill herself. He shows some degree of remorse in his Act 3 arioso Addio fiorito asil. Beniamino Gigli is the tenor. An unanswerable question – what’s Mrs Pinkerton doing on a US warship.
Now for a really vile character – Osaka in Mascagni’s Iris. The young nobleman kidnaps an innocent maiden with the Intent of seducing her. When she resists he disgraces her in front of her father and has her dumped in a sewer where she dies. You can easily understand why the work is almost never done. It does have a good tenor aria that is often done in recitals or on recording. Apri la tua finestra is from Act 1. Richard Tucker’s singing has more ping than a glockenspiel.
Finally, an opera full of villains – Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The only principal character not a villain is the the titular one – and she’s no starched pillow case. To get a full sense of the work along with its brilliant orchestral interludes go to Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.
That’s enough of villains for a while. But without them there’d be very few operas.