The Queen of Spades for VALENTINE’S DAY? The Met thought it was a nice program in 2004, as I discovered during a recent rebroadcast on their Sirius channel. But what kind of romantic evening is that? This question inspired the list of bad valentine’s day operas below.
In a way, this category is too easy. Almost by definition, operas feature love stories gone tragically wrong. I’m looking for a higher level of Valentine’s Day incompatibility. Ordinary excess like Manon (Lescaut) and garden variety tragic death (sorry, Rodolfo and Mimi) won’t cut it. Also not welcome on this list is any couple who dies together for love. Individual partners who do so will be treated with great skepticism. That goes for thwarted would-be lovers, too (Ahem, baritones). And because there are so many angry spouses (rightly or wrongly) who kill each other, they don’t make the cut unless there’s something especially creepy, intense or ironic about it.
Mozart. This is just awkward. These two guys put on disguises and work an elaborate sting to see if they can seduce each other’s girlfriends. It works, and then… everyone’s kinda OK with it or seething with resentment at the altar, depending on the director.
Zemlinsky. Wife of working class husband cheats with fancy aristocrat, husband kills aristocrat with his bare hands, and wife is REALLY turned on. We hear this as much as we see it. Violence rekindling romance.
Shostakovich. It’s not just that Katerina conspires with Sergei kill her husband so they can be together, only to get dumped on her way to the gulag and drown herself in a river. As with Florentine Tragedy, it’s how frankly erotic the music is. The desperation and claustrophobia is a brilliant achievement by Shostakovich, but (to steal from a Twitter game/Pravda editorial) this is a muddle instead of a marriage.
Cherubini. Jason dumps Medea, Medea kills the kids.
Janacek. Jenůfagets pregnant with Števa’s baby, then a jealous Laca slashes her face. Now Števa won’t marry her because she’s disfigured, and Laca won’t marry her because of Števa’s baby. Jenůfa’s stepmother drowns the baby in the river, and Jenůfa gets blamed. Once it’s all sorted out, the stepmother is forgiven on her way to jail and Jenůfa and Laca… get married? It’s really much more upsetting than I’m making it sound.
Verdi. After being deflowered under false pretenses, Gilda “takes a bullet” for her guilty lover, dying for him as he jauntily sings how fickle women are.
Tchaikovsky. Hermann loves Liza and his obsession with winning at cards is totally only about getting the money to marry her. Liza is sufficiently obsessed with Hermann, even after he kills her Grandma and won’t give up the cards, to eventually drown herself in the river.
(At this point, drowning in the river constitutes a pattern.)
Bizet. John Gibbons thought this one up. The dangerous stranger he has in mind is not named Carmen.
Bartok. Judith marries a guy she knows nothing about, then starts starts snooping around in his storage. The more threatening her discoveries get, the more she just has to keep opening those stupid doors. Judy, don’t just DTMFA. Run!
In A Class By Themselves
Lucia di Lammermoor
Donizetti. Lucia is forced to marry the wrong man, so she kills him in the bridal bed and then loses her mind. Fortunately, her coloratura technique is undamaged. Out she comes to sing her famous mad scene in a blood-soaked gown in front of all her wedding guests. The guy she really loves then has to stab himself, unless his scene gets cut so that the mad scene can be the ending of the opera.
What makes Lucia sound even more crazy is the use of a glass harmonica in the mad scene. This rarely-heard instrument raises the goosebumps because it blends with the soprano and clashes with all the other instruments. For business reasons, Donizetti was forced to replace the glass harmonica with a flute in the original production, but this Met production was able to make the original instrumentation happen.
Richard Strauss. Salome to severed, blood-dripping head of John the Baptist: “Ah! I have kissed your mouth, Jochanaan. Ah! I have kissed your mouth! It was a bitter taste on your lips, was it blood?” All this and more, over a suggestive orchestral swell. Enough said.
Berg. This one owns the Codependency category but it’s so much more than that! Husband #1 drops dead. Husband #2 knifes himself. Husband #3 shot by Lulu. (Son of Husband #3 gets really turned on when Lulu announces “I killed your father on this sofa.”) Girlfriend willingly acquires typhus to help Lulu escape jail, agrees to have sex with a man (she’s a lesbian so that’s even more of a sacrifice) to help Lulu evade jail AGAIN, and finally gets murdered by Jack the Ripper. So does Lulu, but that hardly makes up for the carnage in her wake. This is much better than I’m making it sound, but it’s not for a special date – unless you’re looking for a litmus test. (It’s probably like taking a date to see “Antichrist.” The movie version of this story, BTW is “Pandora’s Box” starring Louise Brooks.)
Here is a fairly literal rendition of the final scene. Sorry for the lack of subtitles. Lulu is now a prostitute, so reduced that she ends up paying her last client, who is Jack the Ripper. Her lover Countess Geschwitz begins to talk of making a new life for herself, studying law and working for women’s rights. She then overhears Lulu’s murder and is stabbed on Jack the Ripper’s way out. Her final words are “Lulu, I am always with you.”
And if you have a strong stomach, here is a far more lurid production. Film is an integral part of this opera, and in this version, the musical interlude before the final scene features a film of human dissection. After that, an interpretation of the final scene that makes several departures from the text.