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Given the florid character of opera, it’s no surprise that curses are a frequent feature of the genre. I’ve collected 12 examples from eight operas that involve the imprecation. I’ll start with the opera that was once named La Maledizione – The Curse. Of course it’s Rigoletto. The plot is entirely driven driven by a curse.
Rigoletto is one of opera’s sublime masterpieces. It combines melodic invention of the highest order with a dramatic impact that is equally inspired. Stravinsky said of ‘La donna e mobile’, “I say that in the aria ‘La donna è mobile’, for example, which the elite thinks only brilliant and superficial, there is more substance and feeling than in the whole of Wagner’s Ring cycle.” In the opera’s first scene Rigoletto mocks Monterone whose daughter was seduced by the Duke. After the helpless father is arrested on the Duke’s order, he curses both. The Duke is unimpressed, but the superstitious jester is terrified by the curse. He has a teenage daughter whom he keeps, unsuccessfully, sequestered. Monterone’s curse. The opera’s last scene displays the realization of the curse. Gilda having sacrificed herself to save the Duke who had raped her in Act 2 dies in her father’s arms after which he cries La Maledizione.
Gounod’s Faust starts with a curse. The aged Faust curses faith and hope and calls for the devil who swiftly arrives. But there’s more to come. In Act 4 Valentin fights a duel with Faust now made young. With the help of Méphistophélès he fatally wounds Marguerite’s brother who with his dying words curses her for having been debauched by Faust. In the church scene of Act 4 (the order of the act’s scenes is often changed) Méphistophélès assisted by his choir of devils curses Marguerite.
Verdi has more curses. Nabucco’s tenor lead Ismaele is probably the most inconsequential leading tenor role in the composer’s canon. Yet he manages to be cursed twice by his fellow Israelites and for the same offense. He saved Nabucco’s daughter Fenena. The first curse is at the end of Act 1, it leads to a vocal thunderbolt that has more energy than the sun. The second is in Act 2 scene 2 and is relatively tame compared to the first.
In Verdi’s Luisa Miller Rodolfo says he accursed after poisoning both Luisa and himself. He falsely thought her unfaithful to their love when she was acting to save her father. He finds out the truth just after they’ve swallowed the fatal draught. Luisa Miller Ah! Maledetto
Verdi’s most compelling curse, likely the most dramatically effective, ends the great Council Chamber scene in Simon Boccanegra. This scene was written for the 1881 revision that Verdi did with Arrigo Boito. Simon’s daughter Amelia has escaped abduction engineered by the Doge’s courtier Paolo. Simon had forbidden Paolo’s marriage to her which prompted the foiled kidnapping. Simon forces Paolo (Simon knows he was behind the plot) to curse the unnamed assailant. Paolo who is as superstitious as Rigoletto is horrified at cursing himself. The opera’s rewrite was Boito’s audition for the later librettos of Otello and Falstaff. The Council Chamber scene is one of opera’s enduring achievements. Simon Boccanegra Paolo curses himself
In Madama Butterfly Cio-Cio-san has secretly converted to Christianity prior to her wedding to Lt Pinkerton, the US Navy’s candidate for Shame of the Century award. Her uncle the Bonze has found out about the conversion and shows up uninvited. He curses the bride and orders everyone to leave which they do. The glorious love duet follows. Madama Butterfly Bonze’s curse
Wagner being Wagner, Isolde’s curse take more than 10 minutes. This one is from Act 1 of Tristan und Isolde. The Irish princess Isolde tells her maid Brangäne about how Tristan using a pseudonym killed her fiancé Morold. It’s more complicated than I care to relate. Eventually, always a long time in Wagner, they drink a love potion substituted for poison by Brangäne. Here it is in all its prolix glory. Isolde’s Narrative and Curse
There’s only one way to settle oneself after a drink of Wagner and that’s with a tipple of Rossini. This excerpt is from Act 2 of Il Turco in Italia. It mentions a cursed old man – Questo vecchio maledetto. Rossini is better than Zoloft. If he can’t raise your spirits, call your mortician.
There are more curses, but this is as much negativism as I can handle now. Stay friendly – turn off the news.