In this article from the Spring 2019 edition of Chorus Magazine, Anna Picard looks at the destruction and desire of sexual jealousy, and how that fuels the operas of our 2019 Season.
Sexual jealousy is a terrible emotion: hot, red, dangerous and addictive. This is the engine of the shotgun marriage of Cavalleria rusticana (1890) and Pagliacci (1892); the source of Don José’s murderous violence at the end of Carmen (1875); the trigger for Laca’s slashing of Jenůfa’s pretty face at the end of Act I of Jenůfa (1904) and Wozzeck’s slaughter of Marie in Wozzeck (1925); the fuel and catalyst of the tragedies of Un ballo in maschera (1859), L’arlesiana (1897) and Wolf-Ferrari’s comedy, Il segreto di Susanna (1909).
From the earliest decades of public opera to the most recent, there are multiple portrayals of this particular anguish and its destructive consequences. In Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643), the first opera to be based on historical rather than mythological figures, the lives of Ottavia and Ottone are ruined by their jealousy of Nerone’s passion for the courtesan Poppea.
L’incoronazione di Poppea ends with a love-duet, ‘Pur ti miro’. Scholars have quibbled over its authorship. Whether written by Monteverdi, Cavalli, Ferrari or another hand, the fallout from Poppea’s coronation – as the Venetian audience would have understood – was a bloodbath from which none of the opera’s protagonists escaped unscathed. That knowledge, less widespread today, adds piquancy to the pleasurable pain of the harmonic suspensions, as the two voices weave and press against each other in dissonance and ease into consonance. Sex is not a subtext here. It’s the headline act.
Delicious music is often used to express the ugliest thoughts. In George Benjamin’s Written on Skin (2012), the Protector murders the Boy with whom his wife, Agnes, has fallen in love, and forces Agnes to eat the Boy’s heart to a glistening soundscape of tuned percussion. Sung by artists from Janet Baker to Philippe Jaroussky, ‘Scherza infida’, from Ariodante (1735), is one of Handel’s most beautiful laments: the strings falling like tears over the answering sighs of the bassoons. Look at the text and there is more than sorrow in operation. Believing himself to have been betrayed by Ginevra, Ariodante dreams of suicide and vengeance. A translator’s nightmare, the aria dubs Ginevra a jade and a joke, even as the music describes desperate love.
In fact, Ginevra is innocent and Ariodante has been tricked by Polinesso. Just as Otello is tricked by Iago into believing that Desdemona has been unfaithful in Verdi’s Otello (1887). At least Ariodante finds out in time and is able to enjoy a happy ending with his bride. This is quite a contrast to Otello’s repetition of the yearning phrase ‘Un baccio! Ancor un baccio!’ from his earlier love duet with Desdemona, sung over her corpse as he dies.
That’s the thing about sexual jealousy – male or female. At its worst, the urge to destroy the unfaithful lover is as powerful as the desire for that lover, and vice versa. Add music to the most stolid libretto and those conflicting emotions can be more powerfully conveyed when sung than when spoken in the finest poetry.
Writing on Verdi the Shakespearean, from Macbeth to Otello and Falstaff, the musicologist Daniel Albright nailed the corrosive horror of this internal conflict: ‘Every man suffering from sexual jealousy is a kind of playwright, who stages for himself a pornographic theatre in which the beloved flesh is fondled by someone else’s hand, kissed by someone else’s lips. The special agony of this internal peepshow arises from doubt. Since the jealous man is often unsure to what extent this manufactured drama corresponds to reality: is it pure fiction, or a glimpse of a documentary film?’
The reaction of Anckarström upon finding his wife, Amelia, in a secret assignation with his commander and friend, Gustavo, in Act II of Un ballo in maschera, can be read as a dry-run for Otello. Instead of a slow-burning suspicion, stoked systematically by Iago’s falsehoods, Anckarström is thrown publicly into shock. Back in the privacy of his home, he declares his intent to kill Amelia, who pleads her innocence and begs to see their son.
‘Alzati là tuo figlio…Eri tu’, Anckarström’s Act III recitative and aria, illustrates precisely the ricochet between scalding fury – towards Amelia and Gustavo – and remembered tenderness. It also marks the point in the drama at which he decides to stop protecting Gustavo from assassination and vows instead to join the plot against him.
The language used to describe Amelia’s ‘blushing shame’ recalls that used in Ariodante more than a century earlier. Des Grieux’s exclamation at his reunion with Manon, now ensconced as Geronte’s mistress, in Act II of Manon Lescaut (1893), is notably mild by comparison: ‘Tenatrice!’ (temptress). Though Des Grieux ruins himself for love, he never reaches the fever pitch of jealous madness.
Jealousy, wrote Albright, ‘is one of the most creative of emotions: it continually erects elaborate and often flimsy superstructures of anxiety, complete with scenarios involving whispered assignations, guttural words of love and tense contortions of bodies; and these disturbing fantasies are all the more obsessive in that the jealous man may find them arousing.’
In L’arlesiana, Federico, the scion of a land-owning family, and Metifio, a rough-hewn drover from the Camargue, use their jealousy creatively, conjuring images of the unnamed femme fatale they both want to possess that correspond to Albright’s model of the ‘pornographic theatre’ in their propulsive rhythms and obsessive, violent imagery.
For the giovane scuola composers – Cilea, Puccini, Leoncavallo, Mascagni and Wolf-Ferrari – Verdi was a towering, inescapable figure. Although their generation looked beyond Italy for inspiration, you can hear Otello’s ghost in their early work. Verdi’s late masterpieces overlapped with the beginning of a new direction in Italian opera. The premiere of Manon Lescaut was timed so as not to clash with the premiere of what would be the elder composer’s final and only comic opera, Falstaff. Here the jealous husband, Ford, is a source of humour, because his jealousy is unfounded.
Ford is a model for Wolf-Ferrari’s Gil, the newly-married, tantrum-throwing, jealous husband in Il segreto di Susanna. Where Verdi used madrigalian writing to evoke the private laughter of women at men’s foolishness, Wolf-Ferrari borrowed from Debussy to illustrate Susanna’s secret pleasure, and amplify the contrast between her modernity and her husband’s old-fashioned behaviour. Whether the smell of cigarette smoke in an apartment is as worthy of suspicion as an overweight rascal in a laundry basket is debatable. The maddening fear of losing a beloved wife to another lover remains the same.