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5 - Shadow and Substance

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 September 2022

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Summary

The complaisant dead inch away,

dislocating the shared vanishing point of our perspective,

and we struggle to repaint the picture.

Derrek Hines

The Last Act

Grand opera is notorious for its exotic and spectacular deaths, which customarily occur in the last act and allow for florid valedictories: breathing in the fumes of the deadly manzanilla tree (L’Africaine) or chewing leaves of the toxic stramonium tree (Lakmé), entombed in a temple (Aïda) or wasting away in the wilds of Louisiana (Manon Lescaut), leaping off a cliff (La Forza del Destino) or the ramparts of Castel Sant’Angelo (Tosca) or into the erupting crater of Mount Vesuvius (La Muette de Portici), stabbed outside a bull-ring (Carmen) or a cave (Forza again) or by one's own hand (Lucia di Lammermoor; La Gioconda; Roméo et Juliette; I Gioielli della Madonna), impaled on a boar spear (Die Gōtterdämmerung) or shot in error (Les Huguenots), poisoned by lemonade (Luisa Miller) or toadstools (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) or one's own decoction (Lucrezia Borgia), strangled by hand (Otello) or by one's queue (L’Oracolo), disembowelled in hara-kiri (Madama Butterfly), burnt alive as a witch (La figlia di Iorio), consumed in the flames of a funeral pyre (Norma; Les Pêcheurs des perles) or tossed into a vat of boiling water (La Juive), crushed by a falling palace (Le Prophête; Samson et Dalila) or an avalanche (La Wally) or under the shields of guards (Salome), or flung from a cathedral tower (Notre-Dame).

I provide this inventory to show how rare and noteworthy in opera is a quiet death in bed. As Helen M. Greenwald points out, in opera the “dying fall” receives its explicit musical expression in Puccini's La Bohème. In her view, “the death of a character is reserved for the final curtain, in a familiar choreography where the heroine (less commonly, the hero) falls to the floor as a tonic chord pounds loudly enough to raise the audience to its feet (as in both La traviata and Madama Butterfly).”

Type
Chapter
Information
The Final Curtain
The Art of Dying on Stage
, pp. 123 - 146
Publisher: Anthem Press
Print publication year: 2022

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