It’s Valentine’s Day, a momentous occasion to celebrate love and romance.
Romance is at the heart of opera with the art forms pull coming from our connection with beautiful love affairs. Most everyone melts at Rodolfo and Mimì’s blooming love in “La Bohème” or Alfredo and Violetta’s in “La Traviata.” We admire the sacrifice of Roméo and Juliette or even Tristan and Isolde.
But not all love affairs are made in heaven. In fact, much of what drives opera are romantic failures. Some are blatantly obvious, while others reveal their problems beneath the surface, often hinting at more despair and pain in the future.
So while you celebrate the love of your life, let’s learn from opera’s chaotic affairs so you can avoid their mistakes in your own.
Don Giovanni & Anyone – “Don Giovanni”
Let’s start off with the most straight-forward of disastrous pairings. Throughout Mozart’s famous opera, we see three failed relationships for the Don. He attempts to rape two women in the same work and can’t get rid of the clingy Donna Elvira. The bottom line is that he has no care in the world for women, seeing them as an instrument for his pleasure and nothing more.
Outcome: Don Giovanni winds up in hell while Donna Elvira opts for a nunnery.
Il Duca and Gilda (and everyone) – “Rigoletto”
Have you heard “La Donna e mobile?” That should tell you everything you need to know about why a love affair with the Duke is a disaster waiting to happen. Of course, Verdi’s “Parmi veder de lagrime” hints at some sense of emotional attachment from the perennial playboy, but it also seems like a con. Gilda of course has no sense of the outside world and lets the whirlwind love affair dominate her.
Outcome: Gilda sacrifices herself to save the Duke’s life. He has no idea about that and continues his philandering.
Carmen and Don Jose – “Carmen”
Carmen wants to be free to love whoever she wants for as long as she wants whenever she wants. Don Jose is insecure and possessive. As these qualities come to the fore, Carmen becomes increasingly frustrated with their relationship. Only murder or death of one ends this fatal bond.
Outcome: Don Jose murders Carmen.
Lohengrin and Elsa – “Lohengrin”
Trust is the foundation of any relationship, especially in long-term love affairs. The bottom line is that neither Lohengrin or Elsa has trust for one another. Why does Lohengrin refuse to tell Elsa, the love of his life, who he is? And why doesn’t she just embrace his love for her instead of listening to other people trying to poison their love? Neither seems to care about this most basic of ingredients and their recipe winds up a musically-glorious disaster.
Outcome: Lohengrin abandons Elsa and she collapses.
Otello and Desdemona – “Otello”
This one also comes down to trust, but unlike Lohengrin, Otello is fraught with deep insecurity. He lets his jealousy and self-doubt poison him so deeply that he starts to see everyone of Desdemona’s actions from that dangerous lens.
Outcome: Otello murders his wife and then commits suicide when he realizes how badly he has screwed up.
Samson and Dalila – “Samon et Dalilah”
This is as one-sided as any relationship can get. Samson wants Dalila, but she’s just playing him for her own ulterior motives. No wonder he winds up crushing her and her people when he gets a chance.
Outcome: Samson destroys the temple with the Philistines, murdering them, Dalila and himself in the process.
Cio Cio San and B.F. Pinkerton – “Madama Butterfly”
Continuing in the vein of one-sided affairs, the title character is too innocent to realize she is being played by the sinister man who only wants her for one thing. Of course, the love duet would fool anyone, especially with Puccini’s glorious melodies taking us to emotional ecstasy that few other composers have ever managed. But when he finally abandons him, Butterfly’s insistence that she wait for his return proves her downfall. It also doesn’t help that he left her pregnant.
Outcome: Butterfly commits suicide and leaves her son in the care of his father and an uncertain fate in the US.
Norina and Don Pasquale – “Don Pasquale”
While this is arguably the biggest con in opera, Don Pasquale gets duped when he tries to secure a wife to kick his nephew out of his inheritance. Neither he nor Norina are in it for love and the result is one moment of hilarity after another.
Outcome: Don Pasquale opts for letting Norina and his nephew wed so he can avoid further misery.
Manon Lescaut and Des Grieux – “Manon” and “Manon Lescaut”
Manon never appreciates anything that Des Grieux does for her because she is more interested in leading a fun and glamorous life than anything he can offer her. Meanwhile he is too blinded by love to realize that she is destroying his life, which she ultimately does, leaving him penniless and heart-broken by the end of both operas.
Outcome: Her instability and materialism lead to her demise in poverty and intense pain.
Rusalka and the Prince – “Rusalka”
The takeaway from this love affair? Don’t try to change who you are to make someone love you. Bad things happen. Rusalka wants to be a human to be with the Prince but must sacrifice her voice, which is symbolic for her identity. Of course this presents a major frustration for the Prince who can’t really connect with her on a deeper level. He ultimately ditches her and forces her back to where she came from.
Outcome: Rusalka’s kiss kills the Prince and dooms her forevermore.
Faust and Margherite – “Faust” and “Mephistofele”
Faust tries to play young lover with the poor Margherite, impregnating her and making her the embarrassment of her village. He falls for her but then realizes that he has no interest in remaining with her until it is too late. She murders her own child and goes insane.
Outcome: Margherite dies and goes to heaven. Faust’s future remains a bit more up in the air depending on which version you watch.
Charlotte and Werther – “Werther”
This is a classic tale of two people that love each other that don’t come together because one of them doesn’t speak up. For the duration of the opera Werther pines for Charlotte, begging her to give him a shot. She flirts with him but then marries Alfred just because she has to, not because she wants to. Instead of following her heart and being with the man she wants, she does her duty, which proves fatal for both.
Outcomes: Werther commits suicide and dies in Charlotte’s arms.
Everyone in “Eugene Onegin”
The title character is a jerk to Tatiana because of her low status and his own social misanthropy. Meanwhile she is too young and naïve to realize that Onegin considers himself out of her league. When Onegin finally realizes that she is the love of his life, he does so because he sees her as a woman of status and thus unattainable. She is married and thus unable to indulge in her own emotional pull toward the eponymous character. The one to suffer in all of this? Count Gremin who truly loves Tatiana as she is but will live without knowing that his affection is not reciprocal.
Meanwhile Lensky represents the opposite side of the coin. A true romantic, he falls for Olga instantly without even really knowing her all that well. She just wants to have fun and flirts with everyone and anyone, causing Lensky more pain than necessary.
Outcome: Onegin kills Lensky and winds up lonely. Tatiana ends up in a marriage that clearly doesn’t fulfill her. Gremin will never know this, which might sadly be the best outcome for any character in this opera.
Count and Countess Almaviva – “Le Nozze di Figaro”
Another one-sided affair with the former disrespecting his wife at every chance he gets. But the fault also lies with the Countess as she just sits about passively letting her husband continually prey upon other women without ever standing up for herself.
Outcome: The Countess eventually sticks up for herself and hatches a plan to unmask her cheating husband. She forgives him, but that probably won’t change his behavior one bit.
Don Ottavio and Donna Anna – “Don Giovanni”
Let’s start with the outcome first: Donna Anna asks her betrothed Don Ottavio to wait for her one year so she can mourn the death of her father. At that point she will be ready for marriage. He accepts, continuing an unhealthy pattern that has emerged throughout the opera. She dictates the terms and like a lapdog, he follows her blindly, risking everything for someone that clearly doesn’t love him. She has more interest and passion for Don Giovanni and her tryst with the title character at the start has promiscuity written all over it. This relationship might not fail in the opera, but it is as unhealthy as many of the others that end in murder.
Turandot and Calaf – “Turandot”
Another love affair that belongs in the “To be continued” category, this one is probably the biggest disaster waiting to happen, one that could endanger the peace of an entire kingdom. Here’s the bottom line, Calaf saw Turandot once and then decided to do everything to get with her. He had no idea, like the audience, of her personality except for the fact that she put people to a test and then sliced off their heads when they failed. When we do meet her we learn that she has no desire whatsoever to be with anyone and does everything to avoid the fate, threatening murder and torture. She eventually succumbs to him when he kisses her, the passion getting the best of her. But they don’t find any common ground otherwise.
Likely Outcome: In all likelihood, sexual passion has forced this union. With nothing else in common, this one likely ends in a chaotic marriage and probably the death of one or the other.