Ok, so this Top 5 may seem way far-fetched, but bear with me here. I wanted to do an entry on the subject of opera, because I haven’t done one of those in ages, and I wanted to do another top 5, but I’m studying for an exam, and this was the first thing that popped into my head.
And when you think about it, it’s not really that far-fetched. There are a lot of daggers in operas. I’d say it’s what kills about 60% of all opera characters. In fact, if I were to make a graph of opera deaths, I imagine that it would look something like this:
And it’s no wonder that librettists are so fond of daggers, really. A dagger is an easy prop to carry around stage, it may be aesthetically pleasing with its blade flashing in the stage light, and one might say that the dagger is the opera version of Chekhov’s Gun: You just know that someone’s going to be bleeding to death from a stab wound later on if a dagger is shown or mentioned at some point in an opera.
And thus I would say that it’s justifiable to make a top 5 of my five favourite dagger moments in operas:
5. The Foreshadowing Dagger – Macbeth: “Mi si affacia un pugnal?”
“Is this a dagger which I see before me?” - probably one of the most famous literary mentions of a dagger, featured here in Verdi’s opera based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Macbeth is still debating whether or not to take his wife’s advice and kill King Duncan in the name of ambition, as he suddenly seems to see a dagger floating before him, urging him on. The ghostly dagger is a foreshadowing both of the murder that Macbeth will later commit and of the hauntings that he will experience subsequently (by the ghost of Banquo and by his own conscience both). Macbeth is not my favourite opera, but the music here is very appropriately dramatic and hectic:
4. The Jealousy Dagger -Wozzeck: “Dort links geht’s in die Stadt”
The dagger scene in Wozzeck is related to other opera jealosy dagger scenes, such as the final scene in Carmen, where (SPOILER!!1!!) Don José stabs Carmen to death. But I chose this one because it’s a got such a singularly eerie atmosphere. The entire opera is eerie, just as the original play by Georg Büchner is, and in every scene you get that feeling that there is something dreadful and horrible lurking just around the corner. In this scene, it’s the dagger, and you kind of know that it’s coming: Wozzeck is a poor soldier who has only one thing to live for: His beloved wife Marie and their little son. But alas, Marie has been fooling around with the flashy donjuan the Drum Major, who even has the nerve to ridicule Wozzeck as the two share a scene together. “Better a knife in my body than your hands on me” Marie says spitefully, as Wozzeck confronts her with his suspicion. Famous last words…
3. The Suicide Dagger – Otello: “Niun mi tema”
Another jealous husband, yet a completely different use of the dagger. I’ve included this one because it always manages to come as a bit of a surprise for me. We’re at the ending of Otello where the title character has just strangled his wife Desdemona to death in the belief that she has been unfaithful to him with the handsome Cassio. Only too late is he informed that the whole thing was a scheme orchestrated by Otello’s vicious ensign Iago, and that Desdemona was innocent. Otello is crushed as he finds out about this, and the music turns solemn like a funeral march as he bids the pale, tired, mute, and beautiful Desdemona goodbye. It’s easy to get the impression that the opera is over now, and that there’ll be no more drama. That is, until suddenly there’s a crescendo, and Otello draws a dagger…
2. The Who-Will-It-Be? Dagger – Rigoletto: “Ah! Piu non ragiono!”
This is probably the most suspenseful opera dagger scene I can think of. In the scene, the hitman Sparafucile is preparing to kill the Duke, whom he’s been hired to kill by Rigoletto, who wants to avenge his daughter Gilda’s loss of virtue to the womanizing nobleman. However, things start to go amiss as Sparafucile’s wanton sister Maddalena has developed an elaborate crush on the Duke and tries to talk Sparafucile into sparing his life and killing Rigoletto instead. To make things worse, Gilda, who’s still madly in love with the Duke, shows up at Sparafucile’s door and overhears Sparafucile saying that if someone were to knock on their door before midnight, he’d agree to kill that person instead of the Duke. As midnight approaches and a thunder storm rages, a terrible plan forms in Gilda’s head…
What’s so great about the scene is that even if you’ve never seen the opera before you just know that by the end of the scene someone will be stabbed with a dagger and killed, and the suspense rises along with the crescendo of the storm depicting the music: Will Sparafucile kill the Duke? Or will Rigoletto be the victim? Or will Gilda sacrifise herself for her heartless seducer? The explosive auditory effects of the thunder storm makes for a horrifying on-scene stabbing; you can almost feel the sensation of blood mixing with rainwater as the dagger penetrates the victim’s drenched skin at the end of the scene… Gruelling, wonderfully so!
1. The Penetration Dagger – Tosca: “Questo è il bacio di Tosca!”
In Catherine Clement’s book Opera or the Undoing of Women, Clement recounts the anecdote of a young woman, an opera newbie, who went to see Tosca and returned saying that the ending was wonderfully feminist – that it was so great that Tosca got away with the murder of Scarpia. The explanation was, of course, that the woman had mistaken the second act for the last one, which is an easy mistake to make, really. The outcome of the second act with the death of Scarpia seems like such an appropriate ending, not least because of the dagger. Most of the second act has been like a foreplay from Hell, with Scarpia terrorizing Tosca by making her listen to her boyfriend Mario’s screams of agony from the adjacent torture chamber, and finally Scarpia forcing Tosca to have sex with him in exchange for Mario’s life. So you could say that the entire act is embued with the anticipation of a penetration, climaxing as Scarpia, having obtained Tosca’s reluctant consent, rushes to embrace her. What he doesn’t realize at this point is that Tosca has fetched a dagger from his dinner table and is preparing for an entirely different kind of penetration…
This would have been a feminist ending to the story, indeed! But then we would have missed out on the entire third act.
Here is the scene in the 1976 movie version with Kabaivanska, Milnes, and Domingo, which was the first Tosca I ever saw: