Corrupt power is at the heart of most drama. Seeing rulers misuse their power for personal greed or arrogance is at the heart of the mythology on ruling.
Moreover, it is impossible not to find some degree of corruption in every leader regardless of his or her greatness. After all, this is a world where a Nobel Peace Prize winner and a symbol of change and progress bombed seven countries under his rule.
In sum, finding a perfect icon of power is far more challenging than finding one fraught with flaws and even evil.
In opera, this is quite the task with one surprising trend rising up. Benevolent and just leaders from history generally don’t get such a bad wrap. In the baroque era many of them are heavily romanticized and portrayals of their rule are subjected to winning battles. Such is the case in Handel’s “Giulio Cesare.”
In more modern times, opera composers have turned toward propagating the myth of modern leaders. In this light we see someone like Nixon and Mao Tsetung having a peaceful meeting in “Nixon in China.” In fact, neither of the controversies surrounding either leader are covered in the opera and they both reflect on their respective legacies, making them more empathetic to the viewer.
In the case of Mussorsky’s “Boris Godonuv,” the situation is ambiguous with the character’s positive traits constantly leveled by the rumors of the murderous events that precipitated his rise to power.
Forgiveness is also a major characteristic of opera’s great rulers. The most famous of these examples comes from Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito” in which the titular character prepares to execute the traitor Sesto but opts for a legacy of forgiveness.
But greater complexity in portrayals of the interactions between ruler and his people comes from one man – Verdi.
Most of his governors are far from angelic beings and many are of the corrupt and dangerous variety. But his heroes combine the aforementioned clemency, self-reflection and political action in ways that prove more complex and complete.
The first of these is Carlo V in “Ernani.” His character develops from a jealous autocrat that takes advantage of his power to attempt to crush his own enemies and take vengeance on any disrespect given to him. Such is the case when he storms into Silva’s palace to capture his mortal enemy Ernani and then takes Elvira as a hostage.
Of course his famous soliloquy “Oh deh verd’anni miei,” sees him consider his legacy and ultimately opt for justice and kindness. He demonstrates this moments later when he forgives those that have betrayed him.
Gustavo in Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” gives us a great deal more political interaction. Gustavo is introduced to the audience as a carefree ruler who is bored by the tasks at hand and would much rather dream about his best friend’s wife. And yet in the very first scene of the opera, he listens to two different perspectives on the presumed witch Ulrica instead of just opting for the negative views on her. While he ultimately seeks her out out of jest, his allowing the different points of view already shows a leader willing to fully investigate an issue rather than act on impulse.
Act on impulse he does, especially with regards to his personal matters, but even here he opts for sacrifice of his love out of loyalty for his best friend. It turns out to be too little too late as he is assassinated moments later, but he too shows clemency toward his executioner.
But of course no opera looms larger than “Simon Boccanegra.” If ever there was any opera that puts political discourse onstage, it is this one. We see political campaigning. We witness, albeit offstage, an election. We see the political discourse unravel across various levels in the council chamber. A fierce civil war battle takes place offstage. Political plotting and assassinations also hold the stage. There is nothing is opera holds back in that regard, much less with regards to the portrait it paints of its central figure and his interaction to those he rules.
Simon Boccanegra proves a complex character, a reluctant man chosen by the people to rule a country despite his heart not being set on it. His rule, as is the case with any leader, is good or bad depending on who is relating it. The council scene is undeniably the one that portrays his greatest level of nuance as a leader. Our first impressions are of a man who takes his responsibility seriously and cares most for the good of all the people he rules. He initiates the scene asking for peace with Venice. When a mob demands to see him, he gives them audience to find out what has caused the ruckus. He listens to the explanation of the situation and when internal strife breaks out, he has his defining moment. The glorious “Plebe, Patrizi, popolo!” is call for peace and love among a divided nation. He recognizes his own fault in the division and does his utmost to mend it. A scene later, he reflects on his own faults as a leader before showing clemency toward Gabriel Adorno for attempting to murder him.
Simon isn’t perfect. He does order his political enemies executed as witness by Paolo’s fate and passes along his crown to Adorno despite being elected into office. But through the numerous interactions we see with him, the ruler ultimately proves just and faithful toward his command of being a respected leader.
His greatness, as Verdi shows us comes not from his might or his way with words (though they are beautiful), but from his ability to listen and reflect on his own flaws to improve his rule for the people he serves.
Did we miss any of opera’s fair leaders? Let us know!
And if you want you want to know about the dark side of operatic tyrannies, click here.