Category Archives: Graphs

Top 5: Favourite Angry Arias

I guess you can’t really get into opera without being into really intense feelings, because aside from being about people singing instead of talking, operas are usually about people who feel things really intensely. Opera personas are rarely indifferent. They are rarely put in situations that call for indifference either. Opera stories are usually both dramatic and fairly bloody, and opera personas have to put up with a lot of crap. And thus, if opera personas get angry, they tend to get pissed. There is no “annoyed” or “slightly miffed” in the world of opera, only full-blown anger.

And I like that about opera, because it’s a wonderfully cathartic thing to behold. If you ever feel angry about something or other and you can’t get it out of your system for whatever reason, listening to some opera is not the worst solution. You can be certain that however angry you are feeling at the moment, the opera persona will always be angrier than you are. Or, to put it in graphic terms:

See? Your every-day anger curve is not likely to ever be able to match that of an angry opera persona. You rarely have to put up with the things opera personas put up with, and you’re too easily distracted by things such as the tuna sandwich.  And so, however angry you are feeling, you can listen to opera music and take comfort in the fact that the opera persona will without doubt be angrier than you are at the given moment. It’s a comforting, and a cathartic experience all at once, and you should definitely try it out.

If you are not familiar with opera, here’s a quick guide to what I would define as the Five Best Angry Arias and how these may serve as a means of catharsis:

5. Rigoletto: “Cortigiani, vil’ razza dannata!”
You know what would suck? Being forced by physical deformity and poverty into working as a court jester for a decadent, promiscuous duke. This is the kind of crap hunch-backed Rigoletto has to put up with, and granted, Rigoletto is pretty damned angry right from the start of Verdi’s opera. His anger culminates, however, as he has to go retrieve his beloved daughter at the Duke’s castle after she’s been abducted by noblemen, only to be met by said noblemen who tell him that no, they haven’t seen the young girl, and that the Duke is out hunting. Which, as Rigoletto quickly surmises, translates to: “Your daughter is being defiled in the Duke’s bed chamber as we speak.” And this is where Rigoletto loses it:

(Anger starts at 3:27 in the video). Great anger scene, right there. We’re at approximately 80-90 % anger here, I would say. Everything from the cursing lyrics (“razza danata!”) via Rigoletto’s forte vocals, to the rush of the orchestra, signals anger and will provide you with a great outlet for your own frustration.

For the best angry catharsis experience, you will have to turn off the aria again at 4:55 when Rigoletto decides to try the humble approach and becomes rather pathetic, pleading for mercy on his knees. But other than that, this is the perfect angry aria to turn to for catharsis if your anger stems from a feeling of being out of control with your own life and destiny (“Angry Because Work Sucks” would fit into this category, I think). Or if you’re desperately trying to defend your daughter’s virginity, but that happens so rarely these days.

4. Le Nozze di Figaro: “Aprite un po’ quegli occhi
Figaro is a bit of an atypical angry opera persona in as much as things actually turn out pretty great for him. He doesn’t die, in fact nobody dies, and he even gets the girl in the end. Also, he is not even right to be angry by the time of his angry aria. In the aria he is complaining that women are an unfaithful lot, believing himself to be a cuckold, when in fact he isn’t at all: His girlfriend Susanna is pure as snow and has never cheated on him. However, it should be acknowledged that Figaro has to take a fair amount of crap from his surroundings. In the opera’s very first scene he finds out that his old friend, the Count, is trying very persistently to get to bone Figaro’s girlfriend, Susanna. That’s got to be a pretty big crisis in its own right and it’s bound to give a guy a few trust issues.

In any case, it inspires a pretty good angry aria, and what I particularly like about it, is how rant-y it is. It’s an aria that’s perfect if you’re in the mood for ranting, because, in the wrong or not, Figaro gives an excellent rant here, as evidenced from 00:38 to 01:06 in the below video:

“…maestre-d’inganni-amiche-d’affanni-che fingono-mentono-amore-non-senton, non senton pietà, no, no, no, no!” It took a bit of practising, but I managed to memorise the lyrics several years ago, and the aria never fails to bring me some satisfaction when I’m in a rant-y mood of my own.

3. Don Giovanni: “Ah! Chi mi dice mai”
Donna Elvira is like the matron saint of smited loving opera women. She cannot catch a break. Even before we’ve met her in Don Giovanni she’s been seduced, then left by Don Giovanni, and thus she’s angry the moment she enters the stage (around 70%, I’d say), singing her aria “Ah! Chi me dice mai” about how she would like to carve out the heart of her seducer (at least, you know, if he doesn’t want to return to her):

(Cecilia Bartoli gives good Angry).

This is an aria that’s particularly effective if you’re going through a case of heart-ache and need to vent in an aggressive sort of way.

2. The Magic Flute: “Der Hölle Rache”
I excluded this one from my Magic Flute Top 5, but I guess there’s no real way around it this time. The aria has the word “rage” in its title after all. In many ways it really is the ultimate angry aria, with its impressive, furious coloratura and the raging ultimatum expressed in its lyrics: “Kill Sarastro or I will disown you, my daughter.”

I’ve picked the Diana Damrau version, because she is the angriest Queen of the Night I’ve ever seen:

I would label this as the angry aria that’s best for when you’re in a hysterically angry kind of mood.

1. Elektra: Elektra’s final dance
It probably isn’t exactly healthy to sympathize completely with the rage of the title character of this opera, because Elektra’s rage is precisely what ruins her life and eventually kills her. Elektra’s all-consuming thirst for revenge on her mother for the death of her father whithers Elektra and turns her into a maniac. Revenge is not sweet and behind it lies no satisfaction, only a void that becomes death for Elektra. But that is exactly why I feel that Elektra’s final dance should take the prize in a Top 5 of Angry Arias. Because not only do I feel that Strauss’ music is the most estatically cathartic musical representation of rage I can ever think of  (the powerful orchestral repetition of Elektra’s manical, oft-repeated “Agamemnon” after Elektra’s death is particularly brilliant to me), it also illustrates, through the character of Elektra the dangers immanent in giving completely into your own anger.

I love the above version, by the way. Gwyneth Jones’s insane movements and deranged facial expressions are straight out of a 1960s era ghost movie and they give me goosebumps.

If the final dance of Elektra isn’t enough to cure you of whatever anger you’re feeling, then surely nothing will, I say. And thus concludes my guide to the best angry arias out there.

Top 5: Favourite Opera Dagger Scenes

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: