Olivia Giovetti is the former Classical & Opera contributing editor for Time Out New York and a regular contributor to Gramophone and Classical Singer magazines. She has also written for the Washington Post, Ariama.com, Playbill, ...
The Top 10 Opera Villains
Monday, October 31, 2011 - 10:21 AM
We love opera, but we wouldn't love opera as much if it weren't for the villains.
They often get the best songs, the coolest costumes and generally are what propel the plot forward. It's hard to narrow down the manifold list to a top ten—is Dr. Bartolo, while an antagonist, a true villain or just a buffoon out of the commedia dell'arte world? Is Salome bad or is it written off due to her family? Still, we made the cut, but we want to hear from you: Who are your favorite opera villains? Leave your picks in the comments below.
10. The Queen of the Night (Die Zauberflöte)
Charges: Libel, Slander, Attempted Overthrow of a Government, Attempted First-Degree Murder, Extortion
She has the most famous aria from the opera—not to mention the Mozartean canon—that is full of crazy-lady coloraturas and a guilt trip that would make any Jewish or Irish Catholic mother blush. Yet for all of the spewing vitriol and her extensive rap sheet, the Queen of the Night doesn’t actually achieve much and all ends well for the good guys. Now that’s something you don’t often hear in opera.
9. The Duke of Mantua (Rigoletto)
Charges: Adultery, First-Degree Murder, Abuse of Power
Heroic tenors aren’t necessarily all that heroic, as seen in a school of villains to which folks like the Duca and, from Madama Butterfly, B.F. Pinkerton belong. However, while Pinkerton also consciously seduces and abandons, toasting the “proper” American wife he’ll wed on the day of his wedding to Cio-Cio San, he does show some remorse when he returns for his son. He’s more of an idiot, granted a despicable one at that. The Duke, though? He probably rivals Don Giovanni in his court conquests, all while married, and has those who argue with his romantic proclivities killed. How do you like your hero now?
8. The Four Villains (Les Contes d’Hoffmann)
Charges (combined): Fraud, Forgery, Organized Crime, First-Degree Murder, Second-Degree Murder, Libel
If Stella is an embodiment of the three heroines of Hoffmann, then the three villains can also conceivably coalesce in Councilor Lindorf—though given that logic, Lindorf has some really screwed up relationships with women in his life. His actions include helping to pass off a doll as a woman for financial gain and at the expense of Offenbach’s poet, accidentally killing a courtesan while attempting to have her kill Hoffmann after stealing his reflection and convincing a singer to unwittingly commit suicide, all before stealing Hoffmann’s actual girl away in the Epilogue. What a piece of work is a man.
7. Hagen (Götterdämmerung)
Charges: First-Degree Murder, Forgery, Fraud, Larceny
Hagen isn’t all that bad; one could make the argument that he’s acting under his father, the much-maligned Alberich’s, orders. However, it’s Hagen’s actions that ultimately bring around the death of everyone. It’s his breaking-up of Brünnhilde and Siegfried, stealing of the ring and murder of Siegfried that then lead Brünnhilde to win back the ring, return it to the Rhinemaidens and set up a fire so epic that it destroys all of the gods in Valhalla. Like all great villains, without Hagen there’s no means to a spectacular end.
6. Barnaba (La Gioconda)
Charges: Espionage, Slander, Extortion, Voluntary Manslaughter
Ponchielli’s operatic extravaganza features one of the biggest BAMFs in the canon. Barnaba starts off as a shady character, then abusing his power and knowledge to set up the central pair of lovers to fail while lusting after the eponymous Gioconda. When Gioconda is caught as an aid to the lovers’ escape, she beats Barnaba to the punch in killing her. Barnaba gets the last word, however, by revealing to the dying Gioconda that he murdered her mother the night before after she insulted him.
5. Peter Quint (The Turn of the Screw)
Charges: Pederasty, Child Abuse
He may not have as extensive a criminal CV as some of his forebears on this list, yet Peter Quint is one of the creepiest and vilest operatic bad guys, aided by the fact that we only see him onstage as a ghost. After haunting the children of Bly House in real life, Quint makes it his business in death to make sure his former employer’s nephew doesn’t survive without him. Chillingly, it works and is accompanied with some of the best Halloween listening you’ll hear.
4. Iago (Otello)
Charges: Libel, Slander, Attempted First-Degree Murder, Larceny
Iago is one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains and doesn’t lose anything in the translation to Verdi’s late opera. His manipulation of the innocent and morally ambiguous leads up to Otello murdering his chaste wife and subsequently killing himself. Why? Because Otello passed him up for a job. He may believe in a cruel God, but no deity can be as cruel as this handkerchief-stealing wretch. On the other hand, it’s because of Iago that we get to hear the “Willow Song” and “Ave Maria,” so there’s a bit of an even exchange for the audience at least.
3. Scarpia (Tosca)
Charges: Abuse of Power, First-Degree Murder, Extortion, Torture
Some villains are thwarted by, or at least must own up to, the law. But what happens when you are the law? If you’re like Scarpia, you abuse your power to thwart revolutionaries, torture innocent citizens for information, and attempt to force women into prostituting themselves for political sanctuary. Even after Tosca does Scarpia in, his ill-effects are felt when she finds out his pardon to spare Cavaradossi’s life was a lie. Of course, she finds out too late. The dynamics of the character make for a delicious study in balance—some play him as a sophisticated letch, others as a completely unsexy sleaze. The former makes it more interesting, while the latter keeps it skeevily unappetizing. Either way you slice it, Scarpia’s just plain bad.
2. Katerina (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) and Lulu (Lulu)
Charges (combined, but not all that different): Adultery, Fraud, First-Degree Murder, Second-Degree Murder, Escape from Imprisonment, Prostitution
Originally, Katerina from Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Verdi’s Lady Macbeth seemed like the obvious pairing. But while the latter’s evil woman certainly has her place among the greats, she doesn’t go to the manipulative lengths of Katerina, who kills her husband alongside her lover and then ditches her lover when they’re sent to prison. The obvious pairing to this, in fact, is Berg’s I’m-not-bad-I’m-just-sung-that-way leading lady, who is so evil that she drives men to suicide (while seducing the son of her late husband on the couch on which his father bled to death). These two dames put the “fatale” in “femme fatale.”
1. Mephistopheles (Faust)
Charges: You name it, he’s done it
He’s the devil. Of course he’s the number one villain. But Gounod’s prince of darkness rises to the top for not only the whole selling-the-soul deal, but for aiding Faust in his seduction of Marguerite, his subsequent abandonment of the girl after he impregnates her and for killing Valentin in a duel. The scene where he returns to torture the pious Marguerite with visions of Hell scared the bejeezus out of me as a kid (true story: one tape we have of a telecast has a 30-second clip of Fawn Hall’s talk show when the chorus of devils got to be too much for me at age four).