Wednesday, October 31, 2012

When the Night Wind Howls: Opera's Wraiths and Revenants

Having been raised on Grimm's fairy tales, I find that wishing "happy Hallowe'en" feels like tempting whatever might be listening to come down the chimney and get you; so I won't. Instead, in honor of the occasion, Gentle Readers, I give you a compilation of notable irruptions of the supernatural on to the operatic stage, organized geographically. First off, Ulrica summons spirits in--of all places--Boston:

Nothing spoils the glory that was Greece more quickly than an invasion of Furies:

This does not, however, always prevent rash monarchs from wishing for them:

France seems to go in for choruses of disapproving demons: 
This rather marvelously extravagant production may be found on DVD here.

Spain's ghosts are few but noteworthy: the spirit of Azucena's mother haunts the premises of her judicial murder with notable creativity, and an intimidating effect sure to gladden the heart of any vindictive specter:

Spain also boasts a spirit who haunts the entire score of his opera:

Then there is the ghost of Carlo V, who appears (or does he?) at the end of Don Carlo to tell everyone on stage what the audience has known for some time: life is a vale of tears, and His Most Catholic Majesty's attempts at implementing divine justice are really, really awful: 

The considerably more benevolent ghost of Charlemagne is invoked in Ernani (all right, this is a thinly-disguised excuse to hear Hvorostovsky sing Verdi):

It's also an excuse to hear the one of the best opera spoofs ever, inspired by Ernani, where ancestors actually do appear to advise their descendants, much to the surprise and discomfort of the latter:

Now that we're temporarily on the other side of the Channel, let us consider Scotland: it would appear to be full of ghosts. Lucia di Lammermoor, poor thing, even without leaving the confines of her family estate, is visited by ominous specters. Here Mariella Devia sings "Regnava nel silenzio"; the live recording quality is indifferent, but I was very impressed with the dramatic nuance and vocal assurance of the performance:

Lucia herself, in turn, is united with her Edgardo only as a disembodied spirit:

But enough of these loving specters and back to the stabbing. The question with Verdi's Macbeth is which ghosts to choose. Banquo's, justly famous in literature, comes off well in the opera as well, terrifying an entire room of people despite only being seen by one man: 

Russia may not have quite as many ghosts as Scotland, but it has really terrifying ones. There's the Countess, in the Queen of Spades:

Boris Godunov is a haunted man long before the infamous clock scene. As far as I know, though, Dmitri Tcherniakov's production is the only one which lets the audience, as well as the tsar, see the ghost. I love how Boris is visibly trying to justify himself to his first victim as well as to his son: 

In Germany, it seems, the undead and otherworldly speak for themselves. I first heard the Wolf's Glen scene from Der Freisch├╝tz on this Carlos Kleiber recording, which sets a high standard for bloodcurdling. Here is an intriguingly macabre production: 

In Der Vampyr, Marschner's titular antihero is a vampire who positively wallows in his own wickedness. And in blood, of course. YouTube excerpts are hard to find, but here is Rodion Pogossov busily luring Cristina Ferri: 

A much more conflicted undead antihero is the Flying Dutchman: Simon Estes, in a ship which strikingly resembles a medieval vision of hell, sings "Die Frist ist um:" 
The DVD of this Harry Kupfer production may be found here. Bryn Terfel's generally recommendation-worthy CD of opera arias recorded under James Levine includes a hauntingly intense version.

Meanwhile, on the coasts of Norway, Senta is seeing things. Here is Nina Stemme, obsessed: 

Also in Scandinavia is possibly the most famous haunting of all, if in an opera on the fringes of the standard repertoire: 

Then there's The Medium, which is dependent on ghosts real and imagined, with the murky past in which Toby and Baba have suffered more terrifying than any single spirit (and, come to think of it, why do I leave Monica out of that suffering? Maybe her preternaturally prolonged childishness is not innocence but a method of suppressing trauma. All right, I'm depressing myself.) Here is Claramae Turner, creator of the role of Baba, in the final scene: 

Finally... an opera populated entirely by ghosts: here's the ghost of Marie Antoinette singing about ghosts, in The Ghosts of Versailles

Have I missed any particularly chilling or comic specters and spirits, Gentle Readers? I've left out, I know, the considerable category of those deceased before operas begin (Simon Boccanegra's beloved Maria, Rigoletto's wife) and the smaller category of loved ones invoked when they aren't really dead (Forza's Leonora.) But I suspect that there may be others still!


  1. Well there's The Turn of the Screw and Owen Wingrave.

    Interesting that the Freischutz you linked to was about as unscary as the one I saw on the w/e. I doubt it would curdle six week old dog's milk.

    Also fun to see Rodion Pogossov as the only role I've seen him in is Papageno.

    1. Of course! How could I have forgotten "I am all things strange and bold..."? I'm not familiar with the other work, I'm afraid; I'd be interested to see what Britten does with the material, as the ancestor is, I think, even more ambiguously present than James' other ghosts.

      I do think the Wolf's Glen scene can/should be spooky, but I've yet to see a staging that manages it. Maybe the unaided imagination is ipso facto more effective than a director's attempts at suggestion. Knowing Pogossov through Figaro, I was similarly surprised to find him in a role where he's not at all jovial.

    2. In the one production of Owen Wingrave I've seen the ghost is very much implied rather than seen. It was a made for TV film with Gerald Finley in the title role.

  2. I'm giving serious thought to disguising myself as headless Jochanaan! Well, even though it has absolutely nothing got to do with ghosts, Salome's final scene looks like an horror movie once could watch on Halloween!
    Here's a rather spooky version of 'THE' ghost scene anyway:

  3. wow Lucy! What a spectral feast! Looking forward to checking it out properly this evening (or at least when I am dressed and had breakfast....) Very glad that Hurricane Sandy has not swept you away or interrupted your activities.

  4. @Placido Zacarias Salome is undeniably uncanny! Jokanaan would make a great costume, with or without head.

    @villagediva Thanks! I am grateful to have come through lightly.

    @Anon Glad you enjoyed!


Start a conversation!