5 December 2014 at 3.02pm | 4 Comments
When Riccardo, the hero of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, is warned that someone will kill him at his masked ball, he really should take heed. For one thing is certain in opera – parties are bad for your health.
Mozart certainly realized the potency of parties. In the masked ball in Don Giovanni the anarchic Giovanni tries to seduce Zerlina to the sound of three dances performed simultaneously. When he’s caught he barely escapes with his life. Less violent but equally arresting is the Act II finale to Così fan tutte, where Dorabella and Fiordiligi’s marriage to their ‘Albanian’ lovers collapses in startling revelations and recriminations.
Bellini and Donizetti were particularly drawn to the disastrous wedding party. Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor arrives like an avenging fury to prevent Lucia’s forced marriage, and Elvira in I puritani goes mad when her groom disappears. But it didn’t always have to be a wedding – surely the most devastating bel canto party of all comes in Act II of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, where the anti-heroine poisons six noblemen – including, unwittingly, her son.
Verdi loved operatic parties. They gave him the opportunity to deploy great entertainment music, and he knew that the best way to deliver curses and accusations is against a background of frivolity. Take Monterone’s chilling curse in Rigoletto during the Duke’s hedonistic banquet – or Alfredo’s terrible denunciation of Violetta in La traviata, amid Spanish dances and gambling. Parties also prove perfect environments for murder, in Un ballo in maschera and also in Les Vêpres siciliennes, where Guy de Montfort survives an assassination attempt at a ball in Act III only (innocently) to precipitate a massacre at his son’s wedding in Act V.
Terrible secrets are revealed at celebrations in Wagner’s operas; the most dramatic comes in Götterdämmerung, when Brünnhilde breaks off her forced wedding to Gunther to accuse Siegfried of treachery. But this is nothing to the chaos of King Herod’s feast in Richard Strauss’s Salome, which culminates in the heroine embracing John the Baptist’s severed head.
Russian operatic parties are powder kegs waiting for an inevitable spark. Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin brings about disaster at Tatyana’s name-day ball by taunting his friend Lensky, who challenges him to a duel. Marfa in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride is poisoned at her engagement party (by an admirer who believes he’s administering a love potion) and then forced to renounce her fiancé and become the Tsar’s wife. But the prize for the most debauched Russian party undoubtedly goes to the drunken wedding orgy in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, where Katerina and Sergei are arrested for the murder of Katerina’s first husband.
There are plenty of gruesome celebrations in 20th-century opera, too. It’s a dance that finally sends Berg's Wozzeck into mental collapse, while the elegant party in Act III of his Lulu ends with a stock exchange crash and the heroine fleeing the police. A number of composers including Schoenberg (Moses und Aron) have explored the destructive power of orgies, and Britten provides a terrifying picture of mass hysteria in the Act III dance of Peter Grimes. Festivities don’t get any better in our own century: in Turnage's Anna Nicole the heroine’s attempt to host the party of a lifetime ends with her husband’s death and ultimately her ruin.
All this destruction begs the question - can a party in opera ever be enjoyable? Well, the townspeople in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg have a good time (apart from Beckmesser). And if Sharp-Ears’s wedding in Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen is anything to go by, animals in opera are able to celebrate with the unadulterated joy that so often eludes their human counterparts. But it’s operetta that chiefly celebrates the more cheerful side of partying: the ensembles in praise of friendship and champagne in Johan Strauss II's Die Fledermaus and the final scenes of Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow remind us that parties can – just occasionally – actually be joyful occasions.