An art form that focuses on the extremes of human emotions will certainly have self annihilation as a regular subject. Suicide appears so frequently in opera that I could devote scores of articles to it. It’s such a common event that it’s even stimulated medical journals to comment on it. See Four centuries of suicide in opera for a statistical discourse on the subject. For this piece I’ve chosen 15 operas that have suicides central to their plots. They have different motives and means. Some could arguably claim to be deaths under another category. Regardless, I chose them because they readily came to mind.
Verdi and Puccini account for more than half; so let’s start with them. In Act 3 of Luisa Miller, Rodolfo puts poison in drinking water and encourages Luisa to drink it. He does likewise. He thinks she has betrayed his love. He then finds out that she was forced to write him a letter declaring her love for the wonderfully named Wurm in order to save her father’s life. Too late! They both die, but not before singing some beautiful music and leaving just enough time for Rodolfo to dispatch Wurm. Rodolfo gets a trifecta here; he’s a double murderer and a suicide This excerpt is from a 1968 performance at the Met featuring Montserrat Caballé, Richard Tucker, and Sherrill Milnes.
In Act 4 scene 1 of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, Leonora (soprano) drinks poison rather than give herself to a baritone. He’s got her true love, a tenor of course, in a dungeon and won’t let him go unless Leonora exchanges her person for his (the tenor’s). Everything goes wrong and only the baritone is still standing at the final curtain. The duet that results in Leonora’s fatal draught is one of Verdi’s most vigorous for soprano and baritone. The singers are Zinka Milanov and Leonard Warren.
Verdi’s La Forza Del Destino was written for the Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre of Saint Petersburg, Russia. It was first performed there in 1862. In its initial form, rarely used today, the opera ended with Don Alvaro, overcome by the guilt at having killed or caused the death of all the Calatravas, jumping to his death into the nearby ravine cursing humankind. This bleak ending was replaced by the exquisite trio that leaves the remorseful Alvaro still alive. The original music from the end of ‘Pace, Pace, Mio Dio’ to the opera’s conclusion is led by Valery Gergiev and the players of the Mariinski Theater in St Petersburg. Forza original conclusion
Aida ends with the tenor (Radames) locked in a vault as punishment for treason. He will remain there until dead – either from suffocation or dehydration. To his surprise he finds that Aida has preceded him so she can share his fate. Thus he will die by execution, while she is a suicide. Renata Tebaldi and Carlo Bergonzi are the doomed lovers in this recording.
Puccini’s first of four suicides is his most famous – Tosca’s leap from atop the Castel Sant’Angelo. Maria Callas, the definitive Tosca of the last century is the jumper. She’s killed the evil police chief Scarpia and has just witnessed the execution of her lover Cavaradossi. She thought it was a mock shooting, but it was for real. Her last words as she goes airborne are O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!
Cio-Cio-san the protagonist of Madama Butterfly commits ritual suicide when she realizes how utterly betrayed she has been by the American naval officer, BF Pinkerton, who married her for 30 days. She thought it was permanent and waited for his return; it took three years during which she remained loyal. Maria Callas is Butterfly in this recording of her death scene.
Suor Angelica is the second of the three one act operas that make up Il Trittico. The unifying theme of the three seemingly unrelated operas is hidden death. Suor Angelica is the story of a young noblewoman sent to a nunnery because of an illegitimate pregnancy. Puccini’s sister was a nun. He consulted her about the daily activities of life in a convent which make up the first half of the opera. After seven years in the convent Angelica is visited by her aunt only to sign some necessary documents related to the upcoming marriage of her sister. During the encounter with her haughty aunt she learns that her child died two years ago. Distraught she takes poison only to realize that she has committed a mortal sin. She prays to the Virgin for forgiveness. As she dies she sees a vision of the Virgin and her son who rushes to her. When performed by a great singing actress this scene has the power to sweep away an audience. Angelica is commonly thought to be the weakest of the three operas. One would only say that if he had not seen the opera performed as Puccini intended. Tebaldi Angelica’s death
The only suicide presented her that doesn’t end the opera is Liu’s death in Puccini’s final and uncompleted opera Turandot. She stabs herself rather than reveal Prince Calaf’s name. This self sacrifice quiets the mob that had been clamoring for the name. Calaf after answering Turandot’s riddle had offered to submit to the murderous Princess if she could learn his name before dawn. Montserrat Caballé sings Liu’s brief aria before the fatal knife ends her life. The excerpt includes the music that follows.
Two selections from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda: The opera’s final scene open with the aria Suicido in which Gioconda details her plan to die rather than submit to the evil baritone Barnaba – you can see a pattern in Italian opera. Caballé is again the soloist. The very end of the opera depicts Gioconda’s mock submission to the baritone brute. Just when he thinks he has her, she stabs herself. In frustration he shouts at her lifeless body that he murdered her mother the previous evening. When that grisly newsflash gets no reaction, he growls and leaves – curtain. Sherrill Milnes joins Caballé.
Next, two Wagner sopranos who do themselves in. Senta in The Flying Dutchman leaps to her death in an act of self sacrifice which frees the Dutchman of his curse of endless cruising. Berndt Weikl is the Dutchman, Cheryl Studer is the airborne soprano. Der fliegende Holländer final scene
Wagner’s Ring Cycle ends with everything back to the way they were before the marathon started. In the final scene of Götterdämmerung Brunhilde rides her horse into a fire, Valhalla burns, the Rhine overflows its banks, and the ring is restored to the Rhinemaidens. The incomparable Birgit Nilsson leads the fireworks in this performance recorded in Bayreuth under the direction of Georg Solti.
Daniel Auber’s La muette de Portici inaugurated the genre of French Grand Opera. It also has the distinction of having its title character as a mute. It takes place in Naples in 1687 during the revolt against Spanish rule led by the fisherman Masaniello. The opera is also called Masaniello. It has a complicated plot that ends during an eruption of Vesuvius. Fanella, the mute of the title and Masaniello’s sister, throws herself off a terrace on hearing of her brother’s death. Sometimes she’s said to hurl herself into Vesuvius itself. While an impossible feat, it’s not too wacky for an opera. This finale to the 5th and final act is from a production in Dessau, Germany
Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette was first performed in Paris in 1867. You know the story. It ends with a double suicide. Romeo takes poison, Juliette uses a dagger. Placido Domingo and Ruth Ann Swenson are the teenage lovers. Romeo et Juliette final scene
Massenet’s Werther is based on Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther which set off a string of copycat suicides in young men after its publication in 1787. In the opera Werther shoots himself during the interval between the opera’s final two scenes. He uses a pistol borrowed from the husband of Charlotte the woman he loves. She arrives too late to stop him from shooting himself; he is dying when she enters his room. She consoles him by declaring her love. He asks for forgiveness. After he dies, Charlotte faints. Outside children are heard singing a Christmas carol. Federica von Stade and Jose Carreras are the soloists. Werther final scene
As I said at the top, there are sufficient suicides to consume dozens of posts. But this is it for now.