The Top 10 Mad Scenes in Opera

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Next month, Anna Bolena returns in all its Tudor trappings to the Metropolitan Opera, bringing with it Anna Netrebko's scenery-chewing mad scene for two incandescent nights.

And what a mad scene it is, ending with a lucid and willing hike to the executioner. Donizetti himself died quite crazed due to neurosyphilis and once described his brain as having a wall between the two hemispheres that allowed him to compose lucidly even in his worst moments. A sad story involves Donizetti's friends taking him to a mental clinic in Ivry, France while en route to Vienna. They told him the carriage had broken down and in lieu of taking him to a hotel, they brought him to the institution ("Pity; pity! They've arrested me; why?…Make my tears stop…I don't understand!" he wrote in the same year.)

But what of the mad scenes beyond Bolena? There are some obvious choices, which populate the list below, but there are also some neglected works that deserve more derailing. Read on for our favorite mad scenes in opera and be sure to name your top picks in the comments below.

10. Idomeneo (“D'Oreste, d'Ajace”)
Electra’s aria in Idomeneo is a prime example of mad scenes dovetailing nicely with vengeance arias. Regardless of how you label it, it’s just damned fine music with a coloratura frenzy and a frantic pace as all of this character’s repressed feelings come to the front. And who can blame her for losing her cool when Neptune has just decreed that the love of her life ascend to the throne with another woman?

9. I Puritani (“Qui la voce sua soave”)
Elvira’s restoration to her senses in the final scene of Puritani makes you wonder if they had Klonopin in 17th-century Plymouth, but the descent into madness prior to that is medicinally soothing in its own right. The light underscoring of strings moves like a wedding march. The solemnness of the situation eventually gives way to a bright and buoyant imagining of the jilted Elvira’s wedding, and in between the use of low male voices tempers in some gravitas and outsider perspective. Say what you will about the Puritans, they knew how to have a breakdown.

8. The Ghosts of Versailles (“They Are Always With Me”)
Is she mad? Can the dead even be mad? Who cares? When an opera essentially launches with a scene such as Marie Antoinette reliving her march to the guillotine in agonizing blasts, it’s going to be insane. Add to that a performance originated by Teresa Stratas, the high-priestess of crazy, and madness never looked so good. And can you blame someone for losing their head after…er…losing their head?

7. Wozzeck (“Oh-oh! Andres!”)
Other operas feature characters mad, or at least imbalanced, from the outset. But Alban Berg’s Wozzeck took an antihero that, prior to the 20th century, would not necessarily have warranted an eponymous opera rife with exquisite language depicting a mental and physical breakdown. It’s hard to really pinpoint one exact “mad scene” in the classical sense for Wozzeck, but the peak of his crackup occurs at the end of the second act, preceded by his encounter with a nameless madman and the boasts of the Drum Major after sleeping with Marie, and the act ends on an ominous B chord echoed when Wozzeck stabs Marie.

6. Orlando (“Vaghe pupille”)
Handel boasts a hearty serving of character undoings (Joyce DiDonato’s Furore highlights such moments from Hercules to Teseo), but none can match Mad Roland’s breakdown set to agitated Baroque chords. It breaks with da capo tradition and stands out against the opera’s other famous melodies. With the recent explosion of countertenors, this is one of those moments that we’ll probably be hearing more often—happily.

5. The Tsar’s Bride ("Ivan Sergeyich, khochesh' v sad poydem")
Rimsky-Korsakov’s Marfa has a bit in common with Donizetti’s Anna Bolena: Both are royal or royal-elects whose marriages and lives are undone, resulting in certain death and mad scenes. Anna goes to the scaffold after her husband uses his wandering eye and ruling hand to dissolve their marriage, while Marfa slips away after being poisoned by a rival. The composer’s exquisite technique combined with an icy, imperial and indescribably Russian tone yields a sublime farewell worthy of Chekhov.

4. Peter Grimes (“Grimes! Grimes!”)
It’s said that a tenet of madness can be linked to repetition; the idea that a person is not aware of what they’re saying or thinking so that they are given to unconsciously utter the same thing over and over. No such repetition gets more disarming or terrifying than Peter Grimes at the end of his tether. The cherry on top are unrepentant lines like “To Hell with all your mercy/To Hell with your revenge.” Britten was the master of creepy, and here he’s also the maestro of crazy.

3. Boris Godunov (“Oi! Duschno, Duschno”)
There’s something about Russians and mad scenes. Even the Thane of Cawdor’s clan can’t compete with Pushkin’s Slavic Macbeth as realized by Mussorgsky. Boris bursts out in an explosive fit gasping for air and proceeds to chew the scenery in all good ways, flirting with Russian Orthodox musical traditions along the way and ending with a reprise of the looming, booming coronation scene. Murderer or not, you can’t help but feel a dram of pity for the guy.

2. Hamlet (“O Mortelle Offense” and “A vos jeux, mes amis”)
Before I get to the fair Ophelia, let’s talk for a minute about the overlooked mad scene in Thomas’s opus: At the end of Act II, Hamlet feigns madness post-pantomime, singing a reprise of his lively “O vin dissipe la tristesse” to a terrified chorus that includes his mother, uncle-cum-stepfather and fiancée. It may not seem like much, but it’s a grand finale. But then we get into the quietude of Opheliée’s own genuine unraveling, which compared to the bombast of Hamlet’s moment is unnerving. Rather than fight with abrupt shifts and lively tempi, you fall under its lilting spell.

1. Lucia di Lammermoor (“Il dolce suono…Spargi d'amaro pianto”)
It doesn’t get much better than this quarter-hour slice of harrowing heaven. Lucia is a character fragile from the start, a condition not aided when her brother threatens to haunt her like a ghost if she doesn’t marry his ally. The grizzly offstage murder of said husband gives way to this sublime scene in which Lucia, seemingly unaware of the bloody tragedy at her hands, gives in to sheer musical beauty and her percolating psychoses alternated with occasional awareness of reality.