Accessibility links


Sign In
  • Home
  • News
  • Stormy weather: How opera composers use musical maelstroms

Stormy weather: How opera composers use musical maelstroms

Storms as a narrative and compositional device in Rigoletto, Idomeneo and Il barbiere di Siviglia.

By John Snelson (Head of Publishing and Interpretation)

23 September 2014 at 11.26am | 2 Comments

Despite that fact that you can wear what you want to the opera, few people sit in their seats with raincoats and umbrellas. From what happens on stage this is surprising: opera is full of bad weather.

Since classical times, storms have been used as a narrative device to push characters into situations of conflict. In Virgil’s Aeneid, a storm at sea shipwrecks Aeneas on the shores of Carthage, where he begins his doomed affair with Carthage’s queen, Dido (portrayed in both Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Berlioz’s Les Troyens). The Act I chorus of Mozart’s classically inspired drama Idomeneo, ‘Pietà, numi, pietà’, portrays sailors desperately praying to the gods as wind and waves threaten to overwhelm them. Mozart’s music is in a minor key and with repeated cries from the sailors for mercy (‘Pietà’), while the violent elements are represented with woodwind in whirling, continuous scales and strings playing tremolando. The music moves to the major key with a lighter texture, then a pause – and salvation. But the abatement of the storm came at a price – Idomeneo’s vow to sacrifice the first person he meets on shore, who turns out to be his own son. As in the Aeneid, the storm drives the story.

Rossini liked to score a good storm and there are several in his operas. In Act II of Il barbiere di Siviglia, Rosina has been driven to despair because it looks as though her lover ‘Lindoro’ (Count Almaviva in disguise) has deserted her. As so often in dramas, her bad mood invokes bad weather. It is a purely orchestral piece, and Rossini represents the gradual change, beginning with clouds and the first spots of rain through initial low rumblings interspersed with short flute flourishes. The rain starts lightly but builds in intensity: brittle string notes to which flute is added for the effect of increasingly dense drops of rain. The thunder and wind arrive: full orchestra chords, rushing scales. But the storm quickly blows over, as does Rosina’s temper.

Storms can be more than a reflection of one character’s bad day. In Act III of Verdi’s Rigoletto the storm becomes a manifestation of Fate: a higher power that mortals can influence no more than they can control the weather. There are hints of the impending storm at the start of the scene in which Rigoletto pays Sparafucile to kill the Duke of Mantua. The cheerfulness of the Duke, heard singing out of sight, and the rumblings of the incipient storm become subsumed into the increasingly menacing tone of the following events. The rising and falling chromatic chords (heard with an offstage chorus imitating the wind) is one of the most instantly recognizable recurring meteorological features.

Sudden, loud chords and a cymbal crash reflect the thunder and lightning as well as the dramatic tension of the events. The peak comes as Gilda's first knocks at the door are matched by chords representing lightning and thunder: she knows and we know that knocking for entrance to the inn signals her doom. The prolonged rumble of the timpani is both thunder and impending death. The weather is not an imposition from outside, but a psychological expression of what is inside.

The rise of the storm at the start of the scene is mirrored in its dispersal at the end as the musical motifs gradually unravel and reduce: the murder has been committed. Distant sounds of the retreating storm are heard fleetingly as Rigoletto arrives to gloat over his revenge on the Duke – distant thunder from the timpani and high woodwind flurries of dispersing rain. But the storm is no longer the focus, for the final few bars reveal the awful truth that Rigoletto has brought about the murder of his own daughter.

This is the first of two articles looking at the stormy weather in The Royal Opera's 2014/15 Season. Read the next article.

Il barbiere di Siviglia runs 13 September–11 October 2016. Tickets are still available.

This article has 2 comments

  1. Moretto responded on 26 September 2014 at 3:48pm Reply

    sorry, but Aeneid isn't Homer's poem but Virgilio's (Publius Vergilius Maro)

    • Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media) responded on 26 September 2014 at 4:40pm

      Apologies for the error, Eugenia. This has now been amended.

      ROH Content Producer

Comment on this article

Your email will not be published

Website URL is optional