Operatic Dead Ends
From La bohème to Tristan und Isolde, a look at musical representations of famous final moments.
It’s a familiar cliché: as death approaches, your life flashes before your eyes. If you live in the world of opera, you could be mistaken for thinking this isn’t a cliché but a simple matter of fact. In a significant number of operas, including La bohème, the death of a heroine is accompanied by a musical montage of key moments from her life. Consider just a few of these memorable, operatic death scenes:
In the final act of Verdi’s La traviata, the dying heroine, Violetta, sings a long and haunting duet (‘Parigi, o cara’) with Alfredo, the lover with whom she has – only just in time – been reunited. The brass go on to announce her imminent death in funeral-like rhythms, but Violetta finally expires after a few sentences spoken over the sounds of an ethereal solo violin. It is playing the major-key tune of her Act I showstopper ‘Ah! fors’è lui’ (Ah, perhaps he is the one), the point when she realized she loved Alfredo, Her dying musical memory is a beautiful tune, poignant because the theme recalls the start of her love affair.
Wagner adopted the same approach as Verdi. Isolde dies singing a solo version of her love duet with Tristan in Act II of Tristan und Isolde. He has just died, and she is about to follow him. As with Violetta, it is the return of music from
a great love scene earlier in the piece that generates the emotional charge: past elation meets grim present. If the big event in your life was that one great passion, then maybe it is exactly to that your last conscious thoughts turn. Although revisiting one event is not quite the same as a whole life flashing before one’s eyes.
We get much nearer the ‘flashing life’ cliché at the end of Wagner’s Ring cycle with Brünnhilde. As she prepares for death she recalls not just her own life but runs back through the story, motivation and music of all four of the Ring’s operas. It is one very big flashback indeed for her as she contemplates what has brought her to the point of sacrificial suicide – it’s also the culmination of a theatrical marathon for the audience!
Puccini does something similar in his first major opera success, Manon Lescaut. There are only two characters in Act IV: Manon and her lover Des Grieux. The title of Manon’s famous Act IV aria says it all: ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata’ (Alone, lost, abandoned). Stuck in a desert outside New Orleans – it’s opera, the geography isn’t always perfect! – the end is nigh for Manon. The act is full of musical themes from the previous three, which have shown us Manon’s life from her meeting as a naive young girl with Des Grieux, through to her time as a Paris courtesan and her deportation to New Orleans for theft and prostitution – taking the besotted Des Grieux with her. In effect, the act compares the innocent girl of the start of the story with the dying figure at the end of an unhappy, unfulfilled life. The use of familiar music literally plays out elements of the story for the audience as Manon’s life gradually seeps from her worn-out frame.
For the death of Mimì in La bohème, Puccini takes the idea further. The first and last acts both take place in the same cold, poorly furnished student garret, and Act IV is a montage of earlier melodies, mostly taken from Act I. However, Act I is the bright optimistic, joyous start of the story: the introduction of the lively bohemians, their carefree and colourful life and the beginnings of the romance of Mimì and Rodolfo. The music describes this atmosphere. So in Act IV, these optimistic and melodious sounds seem on first impression out of step with the darkening drama as Mimì succumbs to the final stages of tuberculosis. But Puccini intends to create this tension. The lightness of the sounds throws into relief the darkness of what is fast becoming inevitable, and it is the friction between the two that creates the tension and hence the emotion. Act I and Act IV are two sides of the same coin: one ends with lovers united, the other with lovers parted. It is the flashback of memory and its reminder of a happier past that heightens in Act IV the tragedy of a life dramatically – and operatically – cut short.
Do you have a favourite operatic final moment?
La bohème runs from 16 February – 12 March 2013.