Playlist: Suicide in opera

Gramophone Mon 26th September 2016

Soprano Anna Prohaska highlights 10 arias sung by characters in extremis

Suicide often marks the end of an existence worn down by years of depression. Music theatre has exploited the more glamorous, dramatic side of this tragic act, often bending time and stretching a character’s vital force beyond reality. It has long fascinated me; the laments accompanying, say, Dido’s self-immolation form the subdued epicentre of a performance.

In Handel’s opera, Cleopatra never follows through with her suicide so as to adhere to contemporary theatre convention. Historically, though, Cleopatra VII did take her own life – and thus the aria has a thrusting, relentless, foreboding quality suggesting the inevitability of death.

We remain in the ancient past, as Emperor Nero forces Seneca to commit suicide by his mistress Poppea’s orders. Her temporarily satisfied hunger for power moves her to this erotically charged aria.

Imprisoned Pamina firmly decides to kill herself but is interrupted by the Three Boys persuading the desperate soul to embrace life through innocence – it is one of the most gripping ensembles in opera.

Werther’s notorious suicide based on Goethe’s Sturm und Drang epistolary novel moved more than one generation of young men to wallow in unfulfilled love.

Wozzeck and Kat’a Kabanová, caught up in the constraints of their social class and having suffered abuse through their superiors, ultimately kill themselves.

The Carmelites in Jacobin France were guillotined by state orders – yet, as an act of martyrdom, renegade nun Blanche returns voluntarily to join her sisters in death.

Madama Butterfly’s tale of exploitation by an American officer ends when, on being told her son will be taken away, commits harakiri. Even a warrior goddess cannot escape betrayal and rape – Brünnhilde has a funeral pyre built and sacrifices herself.

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