The world of opera is vast, full of memorable characters, wily villains, and gorgeous damsels in various degrees of distress. (Some, like Brunnhilde or Salome, are in no distress whatsoever!) Here's a tongue-in-cheek look at five tenor roles who probably wouldn't score too high on the SAT's.
Siegfried (Wagner: Siegfried and Götterdämmerung)
Siegfried starts out as a bear-baiting muscle-head in Siegfried. The hero of the second half of the Ring Cycle re-forges his father's sword, kills the dragon, kills his stepfather Mime and then complains, in classic spoiled-brat fashion that he has nobody around to talk to. Then he follows a singing bird (don't ask) and wakes up Brunnhilde (technically his aunt--long story) and clumsily seduces her. By the time Götterdämmerung rolls around, he's learned wisdom from his night with Brunnhilde. Then he promptly drinks the wrong potion, forgets Brunnhilde, kidnaps her and marries her off to Gunther, setting up his own murder at the close of the opera. He even has a chance to avoid that murder by giving the Ring back to the Rhinemaidens. But no, not our hero. He takes a spear in the back instead.
Radames (Verdi: Aida)
Just because you're a great military commander doesn't mean that you're ideal husband material. A newly-minted general in the Egyptian army, Radames is part of a long line of Verdi heroes who coulda, shoulda known better. (See Manrico in Il Trovatore, Don Alvaro in La Forza del Destino and Don Carlo in...Don Carlo.) Our hero is torn between marrying the Pharaoh's daughter and his love for her slavegirl, Aida. Unfortunately, his main squeeze turns out to be the daughter of the Ethiopian king Amonasro, who is at war against Egypt. Aida gets Radames to spill the beans about the Egyptian battle plan. Radames is convicted of treason and sentenced to entombment. He finds Aida in the tomb. They sing together and asphyxiate.
Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton (Puccini: Madama Butterfly)
A Navy man on leave in Nagasaki, ol' Pinky decides to marry a 15-year-old Japanese geisha (for 999 years, with a monthly option to annul), leases a nice hillside house (on the same terms), and sails off for the next port of call. While he's off on the high seas, Butterfly gives up her family, her faith, her profession, and an attractive "real" husband: the handsome Prince Yamadori. (OK, that last one was her decision.) When Lieutenant Loveypants returns to Nagasak three years later, he brings his "real American bride" Kate, and makes it clear that they are going to take Butterfly's child. Humiliated and desolate, Butterfly kills herself with her father's dagger.
Parsifal (Wagner, Parsifal)
When the swan-hunting Parsifal arrives in the domain of the Holy Grail, he doesn't even know his own name, even though it's the title of his own opera. He doesn't know who his father is, where he came from, or understand the power of the Grail Ceremony that concludes the first act of Wagner's final opera. But after killing a whole bunch of brainwashed knights, learning his name and surviving several attempted seductions, this "holy fool" gains wisdom through pity, and recovers the holy Spear. He gets lost on the way home, but eventually becomes King of the Grail.
Turiddu (Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana)
Another winner, folks. The so-called "hero" of Cavalleria Rusticana is your classic callow youth, an arrogant young heel who gets his girlfriend Santuzza pregnant (before the opera starts) and then dumps her for the wife of a local homicidal cart-driver, Alfio. It all ends in tears when Santuzza (who has been excommunicated for deciding to keep the baby) tells Alfio about the affair. Turiddu challenges Alfio to a duel and gets knifed offstage as the curtain rings down. At least the music's great.
top right:Come blow your horn: Siegfried takes a solo. © Arthur Rackham Estate
bottom left: Richard Leech as Pinkerton. © 1991 Metropolitan Opera. Photo by Winnie Klotz
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats
- Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.