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Opera's Madmen

From Russian tsars to Suffolk fishermen, Alban Berg's Wozzeck isn't the only opera character to be driven insane.

By Kate Hopkins (Opera and Music Publications Officer)

11 October 2013 at 5.07pm | Comment on this article

Alban Berg’s Wozzeck is a terrifying and deeply moving portrayal of a man’s descent into insanity. Wozzeck is not the only operatic hero whose tragic life ends in madness and death. Here are a few other chilling examples:

Boris Godunov

Boris Godunov has been made Tsar of Russia following the death of Ivan the Terrible’s son, Tsarevich Dmitry. Rumours circulate that Boris had Dmitry murdered. A young monk decides to pretend to be Dmitry, in the hope of seizing the throne. When news that ‘Dmitry’ is marching on Moscow reaches Boris, he is terrified and imagines that the Tsarevich has risen from the dead to confront him. Although his court support him against the Pretender, news brought by the monk Pimen that miracles happen at Dmitry’s grave drives Boris mad. He collapses before his ministers. Alone with his son in the scene ‘Proschay, moy syn’, Boris raves about the future of Russia, bids his family farewell and dies.

The Queen of Spades

Gherman, a penniless officer, becomes obsessed with the beautiful Liza, and with finding out ‘the secret of the three cards’: a formula for success at gambling known only to Liza’s grandmother the Countess. He persuades Liza to give him access to her grandmother’s room. Gherman’s meeting with the Countess ends in disaster when he threatens her and she dies of fright. The next night, the ghost of the Countess appears to Gherman and reveals her secret. Gherman can now think of nothing but cards. He rejects Liza and rushes to a gambling house to try his luck. Liza, realizing Gherman is insane, commits suicide. Gherman wins huge sums of money and sings hysterically that life ‘is a game’ (‘Chto nasha zhizn? Igra!). However, on his third bet the winning card turns out to be the Queen of Spades, not the ace he expected. Gherman hallucinates that the Countess’s ghost is laughing at him from the card and stabs himself.

Peter Grimes

Peter Grimes, a Suffolk fisherman, is tormented with guilt over the death of his boy apprentice. Although he was acquitted of murder, the local community believe him guilty of that and more. One day while preparing to go fishing with his new apprentice, Grimes begins to hallucinate that he sees the ghost of the first apprentice watching him and relives the boy’s death. Hearing some of the townspeople approach his hut, a frenzied Peter orders the boy to climb down the cliff to their boat. The boy slips and falls to his death. Horrified at what has happened, Peter goes mad. In the final scene of the opera (Act III scene 2, ‘Grimes! Grimes!’), Peter wanders the shore, hearing the voices of the townspeople and imagining that he can see the ghosts of his apprentices. Ellen Orford, the schoolmistress who loves Grimes, and Captain Balstrode, his only other friend, find him. Fearful of what the townspeople may do to Grimes, Balstrode orders him to sail his boat out to the sea and drown himself.

Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd returns to London after years in Australia, intent on exacting revenge on the corrupt Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford, who had Todd deported and raped his wife Lucy. When Todd’s revenge plan fails, his anger drives him into madness (‘Epiphany’). Egged on by the dubious Mrs Lovett, he becomes the ‘demon barber of Fleet Street’, slitting his clients’ throats and dispatching them via a trap door to a cellar where Mrs Lovett bakes them into pies. Mrs Lovett’s apprentice Toby eventually discovers what Todd is up to (after most of the other characters have been slaughtered); in the final scene, he murders Todd, before collapsing insane by his body.

Wozzeck runs from 31 October – 15 November 2013. Tickets are still available.

By Kate Hopkins (Opera and Music Publications Officer)

11 October 2013 at 5.07pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged Boris Godunov, by Keith Warner, peter grimes, Production, Sweeney Todd, The Queen of Spades, Wozzeck

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