Five Operatic Wedding Disasters

Sunday, May 01, 2011 - 09:29 AM

As I blearily watched the nuptials of Kate Middelton and Prince William on Friday morning, Pimm’s Cup in hand, I was struck by many things: her modest dress, the less-than-modest hats, and—for all the media ballyhoo surrounding the event—the general lack of drama projected to the rest of the world.

You could not turn to a news outlet over the last week without being faced with roundtables on how Camilla Parker-Bowles would be placed, who was conspicuously absent from the guest list or how long the marriage itself would last. My colleague Jeff Spurgeon couldn’t have said it better when he wrote to the couple earlier this week: “to have all of us breathing down your necks for every second of it can’t be making it any easier.” It was nice to see that, while it was on a much grander scale, the wedding seemed to flow with the calmness and grace of any other young couple’s nuptials.

Fortunately, to satisfy our collective sweet tooth when it comes to drama, there’s opera. In what other world can a wedding be interrupted by madness, murder, incest or a swan boat? Here are our picks for operatic (in every sense) disasters.

5. Madama Butterfly (Puccini, 1904)

It’s not so much the wedding itself that’s disastrous in Butterfly—though Cio Cio San’s entire family renouncing her on her happiest day certainly doesn’t help. Rather, what ends the marriage, the opera, and ultimately Butterfly’s life is the callous attitude with which Pinkerton enters the marriage. The U.S. Naval Lieutenant knows that he will damage his young Japanese bride, and just moments before his wedding he raises a glass to the woman who will one day be his “proper” American wife. This can only end badly. 

4. Le Nozze di Figaro (Mozart, 1786)
The happy ending of Beaumarchais’s The Barber of Seville is somewhat bittersweet knowing that Rosina and the Count Almaviva will still endure marital strife and infidelity. This all comes to a head with Figaro's own nuptials, which are threatened by the Count's desire to have his maid on her wedding night and the unrequited love for Figaro held by a woman who later turns out to be his mother. One wonders as the climax hits if there will even be a marriage at all. Even after not one but two weddings, there are still suspicions of infidelity until the final, musically resplendent, scene of reconciliation.

3. Les Huguenots (Meyerbeer, 1836)

Raoul and Valentine can’t catch a break in this gem of a French grand opera. Offstage they meet cute, but his faith in her soon wanes when he sees her with another man (whom she visits to break off their engagement so that she can marry Raoul in hopes of fostering peace between the Catholics and Protestants). Before this confusion can be clarified, Raoul refuses his would-be fiancée in an embarrassing outburst that angers both factions. The two are reunited in the final act and, after Valentine quickly accepts the Protestant faith, they marry in the midst of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, knowing that it will be short-lived. Indeed, they die less than 10 minutes later at the hands of Valentine’s own father. 

2. Lohengrin (Wagner, 1848)

Hard to believe that so many brides walk down the aisle to Wagner’s famous bridal chorus given its tragic undertones. Our heroine, Elsa, finds her knight in shining armor but is told never to ask his name. This, of course, goes well for all of one-and-a-half acts before she pops the question on their wedding night. Most of Wagner’s operas have marriages doomed from the start—from Der Fliegende Höllander’s honeymoon on ice to the star-crossed eponymous lovers in Tristan und Isolde—but Lohengrin’s abandonment of his bride (and her resulting grief-stricken death) on their wedding night takes the three-tiered buttercream cake. 

1. Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti, 1835)
Unlike its bel canto brethren in La Sonnambula and I Puritani, the madness and misunderstandings in Lucia aren’t resolved in time for a happy ending. Lucia and Edgardo, the children of two feuding clans, marry secretly before heaven just as he is called from his Highlands home to do business in France. Lucia’s wicked brother takes advantage of their separation to poison his sister’s frail mind against her husband and convince her to forget the foolish vow and marry a potential ally for their family. Of course, Edgardo returns to Scotland just in time for the signing of the marriage contract, and all hell breaks out: Following one of the greatest musical moments in opera, Lucia is cursed by Edgardo, kills her new husband (Arturo), goes mad and dies. Learning of his beloved’s death, Edgardo quickly follows suit.

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