When Opera Characters Cast Their Spell

Email a Friend

I am writing by the light of a full moon as winds and waves batter the eastern United States and people everywhere marvel at the power and fury of Mother Nature. Think of her as a sort of Queen of the Night, especially as performed by the sensational Diana Damrau. We will one day realize the role that climate change (which is real) had in all of this but, for now, I think we are under a particular spell cast by some meteorological witch making ready for her Halloween close up.

Most people who read Operavore are already bewitched by opera and accept that spells, potions, black cats, tarot cards and incantations are the stuff of great opera plots. The Italian title of the opera-loving film Moonstruck is Stregati dalla Luna, with the first word deriving from strega (witch). The movie is a valentine to romance, with opera being the love potion. The film’s opening scene features Feodor Chaliapin, Jr. (1905-1992) son of the great Russian bass as he and a pack of dogs perform a sort of Howl-oween by the light of the full moon.

I have realized that this harmonic convergence of the full moon, a “Frankenstorm” and Halloween has put me to mind of some of the great scary characters in opera. The most famous is surely the witch in Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel, who captures lost children and bakes them into gingerbread (which sounds a lot worse in words than it does in the opera!). The role is often played by tenors en travesti. The late Philip Langridge’s last Met role was a memorable turn as a very frowzy, flour-coated pastry chef. Allan Glassman discusses playing the witch as “Julia Child on acid." Here is Gilad Paz as the witch in a recent Bronx Opera production in English.

Verdi operas have their fair share of streghe. Probably the most famous are the “When-shall-we-three-meet-again?” bunch from Macbeth, which Italian audiences in 1847 first encountered as an opera because the Shakespeare play had never been produced there. The music of the Dance of the Witches is brilliant because Verdi not only draws from the characters but evokes in music the play’s rich text. This opera not only has witches but ghosts, including that of Banquo. The third act scene of the apparitions, from the current Met production, has witches and apparitions who look like British housewives from the 1950s:

Azucena in Il Trovatore is a Gypsy but, with her powers to evoke the past and foretell the future, she is a bit of a strega. Ulrica, a seeress in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera is a much more vivid figure even though her part is much smaller. It is a role to be shared by Dolora Zajick and Stephanie Blythe in the production opening at the Met on November 9. The original Ballo had been set in 18th century Stockholm at the Court of King Gustav III, who had been assassinated. Censors would not accept this and the story was removed to pre-Revolutionary War Boston, where Gustavo becomes Riccardo and he goes down to the waterfront to consult with Ulrica. My question is: Was this Ulrica one of the witches of Salem?

As I mentioned above, I see the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte as a Mozartean witch. Don Giovanni is one of the great supernatural operas and few people question the fact that a fully-wrought statue of the Commendatore (Donna Anna’s father) can be made and then come to life less than 24 hours after he has been killed by the Don.

There is a fair amount of witchcraft in Wagner, even if it is not described as such. Those three droopy Norns in Götterdämmerung can see into the future and it’s not good. Isolde travels with a trunk-full of potions to address all eventual problems and Brangane, her companion, switches the death potion intended for Tristan with a love potion that sets the plot in motion. My favorite Wagnerian witchy character is Ortrud in Lohengrin, especially as performed by Christa Ludwig.

The sorceress character of Armida is found in the epic poem Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered) by Torquato Tasso (1544-1595). She has appeared in more operas than any other witchy character, including Armide by Lully (1686) and Gluck (1777); Rinaldo (Handel, 1711); and operas named Armida by Salieri (1771); Haydn (1784), and Dvorak (1904). Rossini’s Armida (1784) was a great vehicle for Maria Callas, whose remarkably florid singing of “D’amore al dolce impero” gives you a strong sense of this character. Audiences at the Met recently enjoyed a performance starring Renée Fleming and six tenors, led by Lawrence Brownlee. You can watch the whole opera, conducted by Riccardo Frizza:

A properly scary character is Madame Flora in Menotti’s 1946 opera The Medium. She conducts seances and is frightened by some of what is revealed to her. Watch Marie Powers sing “Afraid, am I afraid?” and think which artist you would want to hear do this today. Both Stephanie Blythe and Dolora Zajick would be wonderful.

If you have not yet selected your Halloween costume yet, you could do a lot worse than dressing up as an operatic witch, sorceress or ghost. And if you happen to live in a part of the U.S. being roiled by Hurricane Sandy, you are guaranteed to have a enough wind to get your broom airborne. Better yet, stay home, listen to WQXR wherever you might be, or watch videos of some very long operas—though you might pass on Götterdämmerung for now.