Sometimes you have to root for the bad guy.
Was it Oscar Wilde who commented on a pathetic death scene in Dicken’s “Old Curiosity Shop”: “You have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at (little Nell’s death scene)”?…If I find the origin of this bon mot I’ll add it later, but as is, this paraphrase expresses pretty well the alert listener’s appropriate response to certain characters in opera. The various plights of Bizet’s Micaela, Puccini’s Liu, any of Verdi’s Leonoras or Gildas (but emphatically not his greatest heroine, Violetta), and (for those unintimidated by the awesomeness of Wagner’s Parsifal), Kundry, inspire something less than intense emotional engagement.
It is no coincidence that all these characters are (mostly defenseless) women; but that’s to be expected in the operatic 19th century, although the greatest composer of all, Mozart, treats his 18th century female characters rather more seriously, and doesn’t gratuitously manipulate listener’s emotions…but even here, consider the Queen of the Night versus Pamina. Who makes the bigger impression? Maybe I ought to cite a magnificent exception from the 19th century: Berlioz’ Les Troyens, which features in Cassandra and Dido two of the best drawn operatic heroines in history.
Now take a look at the baddies. Carmen, Turandot, Princess Eboli, Azucena, Amneris…each and everyone of these characters (give or take an aria or two, allowing for listener’s differing musical taste) has better music and is more human than the heroines. As for Parsifal, I think Nietzsche somewhere comments that Klingsor is the only human being in the whole thing. But he heard only the prelude; perhaps if he heard the act 2 “hate duet” (my joke) he would have changed his mind.
Things are different in the 20th century. Shostakovich devotes a whole opera to a noble murderess, Kurt Weill extolls a criminal, and as for Richard Strauss? His two greatest works…but allow me to forego stating the obvious. For some of us, Baron Ochs is the hero of Der Rosenkavalier, but nobody can even pretend he has the work’s best music; that belongs to the “Italian Tenor”. Just kidding.
Does this mean that the best opera composers from the 18th and 20th century were more emotionally and psychologically mature than the best opera composers of the 19th century? No, I don’t think so. My guess is that it has to do with longstanding cultural traditions and taboos that composers often accepted in their work. But where the composers violated some of these cultural traditions and taboos, watch out! You might be in for a masterpiece, as proven by La Traviata or Die Walkuere, for instance.