In art, as in life things go awry. People have relationships and interactions that burn with disatisfaction and frustration. Opera depicts these calamaties with unsurprising frequency. Today’s offering is a litany of bad behavior – sometimes on the part of one half of a pair other times by both.

I’ll start with opera’s biggest kvetch – the argument between Wotan and his wife Fricka that makes up the first scene of Act 2 of Die Walküre.

On a high mountain ridge, Wotan instructs Brünnhilde, his Valkyrie daughter, to protect Siegmund in his forthcoming battle with Hunding. Fricka arrives, and in her role as goddess of family values demands that Siegmund and Sieglinde be punished for their adultery and incest. She scorns Wotan’s argument that he requires Siegmund as a “free hero”, who can further his plans to recover the ring from Fafner, uninhibited by Wotan’s contracts. She retorts that Siegmund is not free but is Wotan’s pawn, whose every move the god seeks to direct. Defeated by Fricka’s argument, Wotan reluctantly agrees that he will not protect Siegmund.

This brief synopsis gives little feel for the wrong Fricka feels from her wayward husband’s mistreatment of her. He’s been a lousy husband and his wife intends to exact retribution: “O why wail I o’er wedlock and vows which thyself thou first hast profaned. The truest wife thou still hast betrayed; never a deep and never a height but there turned thirsting ever thy looks, as thy changeful humor allured thee, and stung my heart with thy scorn.Saddened in spirit, must I behold thee fare to the fight with the graceless maidens, whom lawless love hath given to thee.” She’s too much for the ruler of the gods who at his core is a henpecked husband. Fricka browbeats Wotan

Mozart’s best operas are about bad behavior. In The Marriage of Figaro the Count is a particularly obnoxious character. He wants to seduce anything he can reach. In the opera’s last scene he realizes that the Susanna he was trying to mount is actually his wife. In an inspired moment he asks his wife to forgive him which she does, but he’ll do it again. He a lech. Contessa Perdono

Don Giovanni’s relationships with everyone are freighted with nastiness. He thinks only of himself. He is in fact the perfect psychopath. The Don doesn’t have a real aria despite the prominence of his role. His essential pathological personality is best depicted by his mistreated servant. Leporello’s catalogue aria.

Another operatic psychopath is the Duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto. He’s a murderer, a rapist, a ruthless autocrat who leaves mayhem in his wake without paying a cent in fare. In short, a monster with great tunes. He treats Gilda as an object. She’s just fertilizer for his lust. But their duet is beautiful if one can ignore the cynicsm underlying the piece. T’amo! T’amo; ripetilo sì caro accento … È il sol dell’anima… Addio, addio speranza ed anima!

Otello’s mistreatment of the loyal and faithful Desdemona is painful to watch. His complete psychic disintegration comes to a boil in the finale of Act 3. Otello is reduced to a quivering heap of inchoate reactions. He is no longer a man, rather he is a puppet. The music that depicts his decomposition is the most complex Verdi ever wrote. Otello Act 3 finale

Gounod’s Faust consists largely in mistreating Marguerite. After being made pregnant by Faust and then abandoned by him she goes to church where she is surrounded and mocked by the devil and his minions. Obviously she didn’t deserve the horrible treatment she receives. Faust Church Scene

The verismo composers focused almost entirely on bad relationships. I’ll include Puccini among them though he is more than a verismo figure. Leoncavallo’s only usccessful opera, Pagliacci, ends with its famous play within a play. Canio the head of an itinerant group of players is married to a much younger woman who is unfaithful to him. He solves his marital problems by killing them both during a performance. No, Pagliaccio non son

In Cavalleria Rusticana the tenor Turridu has seduced Santuzza. But he’s too busy cavorting with Alfio’s wife Lola to care much about Santuzza’s loss of virtue. She messes up the situation even more by telling Alfio about his wife’s dalliance with Turridu. Alfio then ends the opera by killing Turiddu in a knife fight. Ettore Bastianini and Renata Tebaldi tear up the scenary in Oh! Il Signore vi manda, compar Alfio…. during which Alfio learns he’s a cuckhold which in turn leads to the fatal denouement.

Puccini’s Il Tabarro has another older man unhappily married to a younger woman. She too is carrying on with a young man who works for her husband. Michele and Giorgetta recall the days before their child died and how he could cover the two of them under his cloak. He is distressed about being twice her age; she comforts him but she still will not kiss him, and goes off. Their poignant duet is full of sadness and regret. Come è difficile esser felici!….

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is a protracted depiction of the unalloyed mistreatment of its noble protagonist. Of course, even trusting nobility is not infinite, Eventually death is the only surcease. Death of Butterfly

Perhaps misalliance is too mild a word for the extremes of poor treatment that befall the shadows of reality that flash upon the lyric stage, but it’s the best I can do. The great composers do much better.