As we all know, operas often end with the death of one or more main characters, slaughtered by sickness, murder, suicide, or even carried alive directly to hell (Don Giovanni, of course, but also Faust).
Here I want to analyze some of the most famous deaths on stage and choose my favorite, from a musical and dramatic point of view. As everything else on this blog, the selection is absolutely arbitrary. In order to limit the scope, I will only consider the last few moments of life of the character, and not the whole scene leading to their death. We will work in chronological order.
Yes, I know, technically he doesn’t die on stage, but it’s so spectacular. Mozart manages to convey Don Juan’s terror, in the midst of his arrogance in refusing to repent. Kurt Moll is a wonderful Commendatore, and Ramey is the best Don Giovanni I know of. It was 1990.
Tancredi’s agony lasts forever. Here I show only the last few minutes, which, in my opinion, are rendered magnificently by Rossini. He uses a simple melody, and an orchestra accompaniment both heartbroken and sweet. No heroic explosions of sound in the end: a hero is dying, but he dies as a young man in love. Very emotional. Tancredi is the late Lucia Valentini-Terrani, in Turin, in 1985.
I Capuleti e i Montecchi
Here we have both Romeo and Juliet dying, but Juliet dies very quickly, so this is mainly Romeo’s death. Romeo is sung by Joyce Di Donato, one of my favorite singers in the world, while Giulietta is Anna Netrebko. The duet is very Bellini, maybe a little cold?
Lucia di Lammermoor
Edgardo’s death at the end of Lucia di Lammermoor is really one of the best pages ever written in Italian opera. Here we see the Maestro, Alfredo Kraus, the most important Edgardo in the last century, in a somewhat funny movie version in 1979. I’m showing you only the last moments, after he stabs himself.
Here is a little gem: Domingo-Freni-Ghiaurov, La Scala 1982. Ernani is not one of my favorite operas, but this scene is really something. the Verdian zum-pa zum-pa gets the upper hand in the very last moments, but the scene is really beautiful.
Gilda’s death, at the end of the opera, is a great duet between the soprano and the baritone. Here we see the version in Dresden in 2008, with Diana Damrau and Zeliko Lucic (by the way, the Duke of Mantua was Juan Diego Florez, in his very first Rigoletto ever). Gilda dies with great sweetness, with a melody that already seems sung by an angel.
In a certain sense, the scene of Violetta’s death is the whole fourth act, because she’s already dying when the curtain goes up. Here we see only the last moments, from È strano
. The last sentences are spoken more than sung, while the orchestra reminds us of Croce e delizia
, the music of when they fell in love. Amazing sense of drama, by our Giuseppe Verdi. In the video, Edita Gruberova in Venice in 1992.
Here we see Leonora’s death, after taking poison. Her agonizing phrase Prima che d’altri vivere io volli tua morir
(rather than live for another, I chose to die for you) is one of the most beautiful musical lines written by Verdi. Here I present to you Maria Agresta, who has a crystal clear vocal line, and she doesn’t breath before “io
” which is crucial. Manrico is Marcelo Alvarez, for whom I have a soft spot, albeit I never heard him live. His Ti scosta!
(Get away from me!) at the beginning of the scene is priceless.
Un ballo in maschera
Riccardo/Gustavo is stabbed on the scene, and he dies for about 5 minutes, while forgiving everybody, including the traitorous friend who stabbed him. I show you the version recorded in 1992 at the MET, with Pavarotti, Aprile Millo and Leo Nucci, which I had the privilege to see live, with a $12 standing room ticket, when I was living in New York as a student with no money whatsoever. An evening I will never forget.
And here is Othello’s death, a classic. Of course I chose Placido Domingo, who for me remains the only Verdian Othello. La Scala 1976, with Mirella Freni. The way Verdi opens up the melody when Othello says un bacio
(a kiss) is pure genius.
Once again, like in Traviata, Manon dies for the whole last act. Here I’m showing the last 2 or 3 minutes, with the wonderful Renata Scotto; des Grieux is Domingo again. Puccini is his usual sadistic bastard: he plunges the knife in your heart and then twists it slowly. He really enjoys writing heartbreaking scenes, he doesn’t spare his audience any bit of pain.
Speaking of Puccini’s sadistic tendencies, of course I couldn’t miss the death of Mimì. Her agony begins at least at Sono andati
, but here I’m considering only the last moments, from when she gets the muff. Puccini gives us a Mimì who falls asleep and dies very sweetly, while the orchestra reminds us of Che gelida manina
, the melody of when they fell in love, like in Traviata. Ileana Cotrubas in 1992.
Hors concours, Tosca
Here is Scarpia’s death, a dramaturgic masterpiece! I couldn’t resist to show you the celebrated video taken at Covent Garden in 1964, which is more or less the only video showing Callas on stage. Her scream Ti soffoca il sangue?!
(Are you choking on your own blood?) is unforgettable. Tito Gobbi dies like a Dickensian villain, full of terror and rage. Hors concours because Callas and Gobbi are so good that there would be no competition. Even if the competition is about the music and the drama, and not the interpretation.
My own place list
- First: Tancredi
- Second: Manon Lescaut
- Third: Il trovatore
Tell me yours!