It’s that time of the year again! Today is Mother’s Day, and I’d like to use this opportunity to reflect on the sheer number and variety of bad moms in opera. Or, to put it another way, 500 years of mommy issues!
This is, of course, not a recent discovery. In fact, this 2013 article from Deceptive Cadence is the perfect primer on the subject — they even reference one of my musicological crushes, Susan McClary!
Men, who grow up knowing the domestic authority of their mothers, dread them. So mothers become either invisible or monstrous. – Susan McClary
Proving McClary’s point, I ended up having to text Molly to ask if she knew of any good mothers in opera. NPR’s list is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to terrible mothers onstage in opera. Here, now, are three more examples of this trope:
Azucena from Verdi’s Il trovatore
Even by operatic standards, Il trovatore (The Troubadour)has an intensely bizarre, convoluted, and straight-up confusing plot. Ultimately, it all hinges on the gypsy woman Azucena, who, in an attempt to avenge her mother’s gruesome execution by Count di Luna, kidnaps his youngest son and throws him into the same pyre where they have burned her mother at the stake. Unfortunately, she ends up throwing her own child into the flames instead. She then raises the Count’s son, Manrico, as her own.
Fast forward a few decades and, naturally, Manrico has become the romantic and political nemesis of the new Count di Luna, his long-lost brother. In the second act of the opera, Azucena even tells Manrico the story of her horrifying mistake (the aria “Condotta ell’era in ceppi” – “They dragged her in chains”), but won’t quite admit that Manrico is not her biological son after all. Frankly, it’s all very confusing, and productions differ about whether or not Manrico understands the truth or not. It doesn’t really matter, though, because it all ends with the brothers’ beloved Leonora poisoning herself, di Luna executing Manrico, and Azucena informing him that he’s murdered his own brother. The whole thing ends with Azucena crying to her mother that she is finally avenged.
Azucena makes an unbelievable amount of terrible parenting decisions throughout the opera, but it takes a particularly irresponsible mother to accidentally throw her own child into a fire. Better yet, how about not throwing any children into a fire? Just a thought.
Despite (or maybe because of?) her horrible behavior, Verdi gives Azucena some seriously bad-ass music, starting with the barn burner (pun intended) aria “Stride la vampa” (“the flames blaze”), in which she describes her mother’s horrifying death. In addition to the two tracks of the phenomenal Marilyn Horne in the role, you should definitely check out the current reigning Azucena, Dolora Zajick, performing the role at the Metropolitan Opera.
Marcellina from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro
Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) is another opera that features a great deal of mistaken identity and kidnapped children, only in this case it’s supposed to be funny. Figaro is engaged to Susanna, and both are servants in Count Almaviva’s household. Unfortunately, the Count is a total jerk and is obsessed with getting Susanna to sleep with him by any means necessary. He is aided by Marcellina, a former servant who had previously loaned money to Figaro. The collateral? Why, his hand in marriage, of course! In the third act, after a number of shenanigans have already occurred, Marcellina brings charges against Figaro, demanding that he marry her in order to repay the debt.
But wait! Figaro argues that he can’t possibly marry Marcellina because he needs his parents’ permission, but because he was stolen at birth, he doesn’t know whom to ask. Of course it turns out that Marcellina is his mother, which they confirm via a “distinctive birth mark” on his arm. To make it even weirder, his father is another one of the Count’s henchmen, Bartolo. Eat your heart out Oscar Wilde.
I’m not saying that Marcellina is totally at fault here. After all, her baby was kidnapped. However, if you’re obsessed with marrying a guy, wouldn’t you think to maybe ask him where he’s from? And according to the trio of plays by Beaumarchais on which Le nozze di Figaro (and Rossini’s later opera Il barbiere di Siviglia), all of these people have known each other for DECADES. How hard could Marcellina have possibly looked for this kid?? I will note that after their reunion, Marcellina is very sweet and supportive to Figaro and Susanna. But when you think of how determined she was to marry her son…
Check out the hilarious and beautiful Act 3 sextet, “Riconosci in questo amplesso” (“Recognize in this embrace”), in which Marcellina and Bartolo happily embrace their son, while the Count and another lackey, Curzio, look on angrily. At 1:36, you’ll hear the SLAP Susanna delivers to Figaro’s face as he tries to explain why he’s embracing Marcellina (the exchange translates to “Listen, my dear,” “Listen to THIS! *SLAP*”). My favorite part, though, is at 2:27, when Marcellina explains that she’s his mother (“Sua madre!”), which is repeated by the rest of the characters, then again when Bartolo reveals that he’s his father (“Sua padre!”). You can also watch the trial and sextet from the same production (one of my absolute favorites) here, which gives you a sense of the screwball hilarity of the whole scene… and really the whole opera.
Side note: I LOVE this opera.
Emilia Marty/Elina Makropulos from Janáček’s Věc Makropulos
This isn’t so much a case of a bad mother as a bad great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother. Věc Makropulos (The Makropulos Case) is a totally bonkers Czech opera that, between the difficulty of the lead soprano role and extreme moral ambiguity of the story, is not done super often. But when it is, it’s a doozy. The story centers on the mysterious opera superstar (so meta!) Emilia Marty who, for reasons that are not immediately clear, inserts herself in the middle of a century-long estate dispute between Baron Prus and Albert Gregor, who claims to be the rightful heir to the Prus family fortune. Marty claims that Gregor’s ancestor, Ferdinand Gregor, was the illegitimate (and only) child of the original Baron Prus and a singer named Ellian MacGregor, and that the proof he needs is located in the vault at Prus’ home. Also in the vault? The recipe for an ancient formula that allows you to live for three centuries.
It turns out that Emilia Marty is actually Elina Makropulos, and that she was born in Crete in the 1500s. Her father had been an alchemist for the king, who demanded a potion for eternal life. The king then tested it on Elina and she lived on for three hundred years, during which time she took on numerous identities, all with the initials “E.M.” One of these identities was Ellian MacGregor, hence why she knew about the proof in Prus’ vault. The only reason she informed Gregor of his true lineage and his rightful inheritance is that the effects of the potion are beginning to wear off, and she is desperate for the formula so that she can live even longer.
During her 300+ year lifetime, Elina racks up countless broken hearts as well as a bit of a body count. Baron Prus, his son Janek, and Gregor, who, lest we forget, her great-great-great-great (or something like that)-grandson, all declare their love for her. Janek even ends up killing himself after she rejects him. To add insult to injury, it turns out that none of the evidence that they find is usable in the court case: thanks to her constant name changes, all the documents contradict each other and don’t prove anything. After revealing her true identity, Elina decides that she is bored with the world and, in classic opera fashion, keels over and dies on the spot as the other characters look on in horror.
Anywho, behold this insane staging of the final scene in Bayerische Staatsoper’s 2014 production, starring German powerhouse Nadja Michael’s arms. The rest of her, too, but let’s focus on what’s important here. I’m not sure what is going on with the half-naked men whipping her, or the guys with the flowers, but I’m sure it’s very deep. Thanks, Germany!
These are just a couple of examples of bad mothering in operas. And, as you probably know, this trope is not unique to opera. Still, I hope this list perhaps makes you appreciate your mother a bit more — at the very least, she didn’t kill you a burning pyre of human ash. Perspective!
Note: I’ve also included the arias from Deceptive Cadence’s list, as they’re awesome.