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Monday, October 5, 2015

The Five Scariest Scenes in Opera

We look at harrowing moments in honor of Halloween.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The man who came to dinner: John Tomlinson as the Commendatore in Don Giovanni.
Image from the 1984 film Amadeus © The Saul Zaentz Company/Orion Pictures.
Opera is more than just pretty voices against an orchestra: it is an art form that has fascinated listeners for five centuries. And ever since Monteverdi's >i>L'Incoronazione di Poppea
, composers have gleefully shown bloodshed, murder, rape and (in the case of Hansel und Gretel) cannibalism.
In honor of the month of October and the approach of Halloween Superconductor offers a list of five operatic moments that make us clutch our arm-rests: the most nail-biting, terrifying, out-right harrowing scenes from five famous operas.

(Note to our readers: If you haven't seen Elektra, Rigoletto or Tosca yet (and they're all on the Metropolitan Opera's schedule this season) beware: there be spoilers after the jump.)

Der FreischützThe Wolf's Glen
This might be the least familiar opera on this list, although it was performed recently at the Kaye Playhouse. An early example of German romantic opera, Carl Maria von Weber's Freischütz (the title loosely translated means "the free-shooter") is about a huntsman who sells his soul to the devil for magic bullets. The twist is this: the last bullet's path will be controlled not by Max but by the Devl himself. In this gothic and atmospheric scene, slithering strings and whispering woodwinds create the Wolf's Glen, the dark and gloomy grove where the transaction between Max and Samiel The Black Huntsman is to take place. It is suitably gothic, and proved a great inspiration to the early operas of Richard Wagner.
Watch the Damnation Scene from Don Giovanni here. 
All footage © 1984 Saul Zaentz Corporation

Don Giovanni: The Entry of the Stone Guest and Damnation Scene.
Part of what makes Don Giovanni the "greatest opera ever written" (stage director Jonathan Miller's words, not mine) is its finale, where the statue of the murdered Commendatore accepts the Don's invitation to join him at the dinner table. Up 'til halfway through the second act, this opera has been a comic romp for the most part, following the Don and his servant Leporello on a series of wacky adventures, failed seductions and (on at least two occasions) attempted rape.

Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte sought to show that there was a serious consequence for the life of an 18th century party animal. This chilling sequence is foreshadowed by the opening chords of the overture, and never fails to make an impact. (Well, sometimes it fails, and then people like me write negative reviews.) Orchestrally, it is a masterpiece, with Mozart pouring on the 18th century hellfire thanks to swirling strings and a stentorian chorus of demons. It's completely and marvelously over the top.

Rigoletto: The Sack
Verdi sets up the tragic denouement of Rigoletto with seemingly effortless ease--it helped that he and his librettist Piave were working from a play by none other than Victor Hugo. The last scene is a cruel exercise in dramatic irony. The audience knows/i> that Gilda is dead, and that Rigoletto is carrying her body in the sack. And yet, the moment when the (offstage) Duke starts a reprise of "La donna e mobile" is one of nail-biting tension as we are placed in the mind of the opera's anti-hero and realize that it is his scheming and plotting that has inadvertently caused his daughter's death. 

Tosca: The Torture of Cavaradossi
For sheer bloody grand guignol it is tough to beat Tosca. Puccini takes an almost sadistic glee in describing the torture of the opera's hero Mario Cavaradossi, using a series of ascending, chromatic chords to depict the "iron band" around the poor singer's head, and the blood running down as Scarpia's brute squad does their thing. Best of all, it happens offstage so all the sadism is in the orchestra. Ham-acting tenors love this scene, particularly the moment when they get to throw off their captors and bellow "Vittoria!" at the news that Scarpia's allies have been defeated. (Even better, this sets up their execution and death scene in the opera's third act!)

The murder of Klytaemnestra from the Vienna State Opera production of Elektra.
Eva Marton as Elektra. Footage © 1989 Vienna State Opera.

Elektra: The Murder of Klytaemnestra
How scary is Elektra? Richard Strauss followed up his blood-drenched third opera Salome with this harrowing one-hundred-minute adaptation of Sophocles' Greek tragedy. Elektra is a roller-coaster ride through the rotting House of Atreus, where blood is due to spill at any minute. The title character's determination to kill her mother drives the plot. She wants to avenge her murdered father with the same axe used to kill him. In this scene, Elektra's brother Orestes has come home to wreak vengeance on their dear old Mum, and Strauss pulls out every trick in the orchestral book to keep listeners on edge, including having the bloody deed take place offstage.

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