The Iron Fist – Opera’s Most Oppressive Tyrannies

By David Salazar

The world is set to undergo a change this week with a massive transfer of power. There is tremendous uncertainty regarding this situation, some expecting the very worst.

Art represents an interesting window into our deepest fears and opera has its fair share of oppressive regimes and tyrannical rule in all guises. What follows is a look at some of the biggest nightmares running countries, estates and even entire worlds. The list is by no means complete or exhaustive as opinions will certainly vary as to whether some other rulers are more deserving of mention.

Let’s begin.

The One Who Gets Away With Everything in “Rigoletto”

Have you ever heard of a wealthy, charismatic, misogynistic charlatan who gets away with everything regardless of how low he stoops? That would be Verdi’s Duke of Mantua from “Rigoletto” and he is by far one of the most villainous characters in all of opera. It is truly hard to find a redeeming quality in this man. Two of his arias are aimed at objectifying women and in a cruel twist of fate, one of those tunes, “La Donna e mobile,” is arguably opera’s most famous and catchy tune; it is essentially the operatic version of winning people over with a catchy mantra.

He plays the audience, getting a tender aria that hints at his sweet humanity before turning the script on us yet again. He lies through his teeth to get what he wants, telling the innocent Gilda that he is but a poor student when she lets it slip that she hopes he is poor. He seduces a prostitute. He has his enemies arrested and then murdered. And he has no problem bedding the wives of his most trusted allies.

The worst part of it? He gets away with it. He is completely untouchable and even when you think he has made a mistake and is set to be murdered, the very people he has lied to, and in Gilda’s case raped, run to his rescue to protect him from the fate he deserves.

The Monster Who Gets His Comeuppance in “Tosca” and “Guillaume Tell”

The Duke in “Rigoletto” might be the worst kind of monster, but he is cunning and even charming. “Tosca’s” Scarpia is not charismatic in anyway and is easily the most vile of all tyrants in all of opera. Unlike the Duke, Scarpia actually interacts with the people he rules and his interactions leave a lot to be desired. Where the Duke uses deception to get his horrendous ways, Scarpia is a blunt force that uses violence. He lies, tortures physically and emotionally, murders and even attempts to rape a woman. While the Duke gets a “gentle” aria crooning over lost love, Scarpia sings about his appetite. For all his trouble, he winds up getting murdered by the very woman he has tortured emotionally and is ready to rape.

Another character who is similar to Scarpia in his behavior is Gesler from Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell.” He is also a tyrant who murders political opposition and keeps the conquered Swiss in a repressive state. He also tortures the opera’s protagonist into nearly killing his own son and like Scarpia, winds up killed by the very person he so wronged. The only thing that really keeps him away from earning the same hatred “Tosca’s” villain does is his diminished stage time.

The Ochlocracy in “Andrea Chenier”

If the French revolution can teach us anything, it’s that there does not need to be an autocrat running the government for a tyranny to exist. Mob rule, or ochlocracy, can be just as tyrannical and oppressive due to its true lack of vision. The terror as portrayed in Giordano’s famous opera showcases this tumultuous time through the character of Gerard. He condemns the upper classes in the first act, revolts against them and then earns a position of power within the ranks of the revolution. But by act three he is doubting the new system that he fought so hard to create. He questions whether the result of the revolution is any better than what came before. His attempts to defend the titular hero, who served his country bravely, are shut down rather abruptly, showing us a reign of terror in which forgiveness is not possible and murder of any opposition is always the answer.

The Religious Puppet in “Don Carlo”

Now we delve into some more complicated territory as the regimes examined are far more nuanced and even complex. They are frightening to be sure, but the people in charge are not the worst humans around. Re Filippo (Phillip II) leads Spain under the Spanish Inquisition and the initial interactions we get of him are that of a selfish, jealous and paranoid ruler. We also see him preside over an auto-da-fe.

When freedom for Flanders is asked of him repeatedly he turns it down, has people murdered and denies his own son an opportunity at political growth. We later learn of his insecurities and see him toyed around by the Grand Inquisitor in one of opera’s great political discourses. It is here that Filippo is revealed to be a puppet for the church, the institution’s tyranny the true villain of the opera. It is here that we see the danger of allowing religious bigots and zealots political power, something that obviously never happens in modern times. Filippo concedes to have his political opposition, Rodrigo, murdered to placate the church. He does protest this action, but instead of considering the good of his people, he battles back out of self-interest. At the end of the work he is ready to murder his own son as well, asking the church to do its service as he has done his.

The irony of it all comes from one particular scene where Rodrigo confronts the king and asks him to consider his legacy. Rodrigo has just asked the King to free the people of Flanders and he responds that he has brought peace to his King. Rodrigo protests that it is the peace of the cemetery and warns him not to be remembered as Nero. Historically, that is exactly his fate.

The Abusive Lord in “Le Nozze di Figaro”

Mozart’s masterwork may be a comedy but there is no denying that its main antagonist, the Count Almaviva, is one to fear. As the opera opens we learn that for personal gain he has changed a law that he himself previously instituted. He uses every trick in the book, manipulates every person at his disposal to get what he wants regardless of the fact that he repeatedly hurts those most loyal to him. The things he has going for him is that he does not murder anyone and that when all is said and done, he does ask for forgiveness, something you probably won’t find anywhere else on this article.

The Corrupted Hero in “Macbeth”

Macbeth is a well-meaning man who lets some prophecy dictate his moral behavior, resulting in murder, high treason and an insatiable thirst for power that begets more violence. His ultimate pitfall results from the arrogance that his own power has given him, that very characteristic blinding him from seeing where his downfall might transpire from. He does lament his loneliness and the fate he suffers as a tyrant, but it comes too late.

Verdi’s work not only shows us Macbeth’s corruption, but allows for a few moments to intone the misery his people endure on a day to day basis. Any doubts of his fearful reign are dashed away the moment the chorus sings “Patria Oppressa.”

The Dynasty in Donizetti’s Trilogy

Over the course of three operas, Donizetti shows the Tudor family in a rather villainous light. First up is Enrico (Henry VIII) in “Anna Bolena.” Desirous of casting off his current wife Anna and eloping with Giovanna Seymour (Jane Seymour) he essentially plants a trap for his wife to fall into a trap of infidelity so that he can justify murdering her in court. Anna takes the bait and suffers that very fate.

In his final two operas of the Tudor Trilogy, it is his daughter Elisabetta (Elizabeth I) who turns into a vengeful ruler. The picture painted however if far more complex across both “Maria Stuarda” and “Roberto Devereux.” While Elisabetta sentences two people to death in each opera due to political reasons, she is shown as a woman driven more by her passions, jealousy and even insecurity into murdering. Her treatment of Stuarda is downright cruel in their big confrontation, showing herself to be a snake setting a trap, like her father, that will lead to Maria’s downfall. In “Devereux” she winds up suffering for her sins.

An Absent God in “Der Ring des Nibelungen”

Bear with me on this one. For many, Wotan is the hero of Wagner’s Ring cycle and he delivers some of the most heart-wrenching moments in the opera, making it impossible to dislike him in the least. But the bottom line is that Wotan’s poor autocratic rule is exactly what Wagner is condemning in his work and what he is trying to dismantle (Wagner goes so far as to create a direct relationship between the two leitmotifs of Wotan and Alberich, the character he most despises in the entire work).

Wotan rules supreme at the start of “Das Rheingold,” but we quickly learn that his priorities are in the wrong places. He cares so much about building himself a proper castle that he uses his own sister-in-law as a bargaining chip. When he can’t pay off a debt that he himself miscalculated, he tries to maneuver his way around things. Failing in his negotiations with the giants, he is forced to do what any imperial ruler would do, he heads to another land and steals away their treasures. It should be noted that the people he steals from are a bunch of outcasts that are literally beneath Wotan and his fellow Gods. Not content with just taking all the Nibelung gold, he takes a ring as well, prompting a curse that is set to damage and corrupt everyone around him. He never had to take the ring, but he does so out of greed, and he pays for it later on.

He eventually gets his gilded castle and by the time the second opera comes around we find out he is trying to help his own son fulfill a prophesy that will help all humankind in a way he cannot. He is eventually forced to help in the murder his son and when his most beloved daughter betrays him, because she was only fulfilling his deepest desire, he has her hang on a rock until she is claimed by a hero that he could have killed a few scenes earlier if the timing had worked in his favor.

After all this disaster caused by bad deal making, he simply abandons everything and goes around wandering and waiting for someone to clean up his mess. It results in his own demise.

Do you agree with this list? Which operatic tyrants did we miss out on?

Want to read about the just and benevolent rulers of the opera world? Check out the second part of this series. 


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