I was eleven years old when I paid my first visit to a Madame Tussaud’s waxworks. Lookalike film stars and world leaders held some interest for a youngster, but the much anticipated highlight was a visit to the Chamber of Horrors. The display of instruments of torture had the desired effect on the visitor as much as the waxy victims, but the tableau that stuck in the mind (and remains there to this day) was that of an execution. No blood and gore. Just a gallows with the noose ready to do its service to society. The most arresting aspect was that the condemned person was a woman: Ruth Ellis, the last person to be hanged in the United Kingdom, on 15 July 1955 at Royal Holloway Prison. My little-boy norms expected it to be a man on the trapdoor. If had known a bit more about the world of opera, maybe I wouldn’t have been so shocked, since that industry sports its fair share of dangerous dames. For those who may be unfamiliar with these individuals, their scheming and their sinning, here’s a snapshot of some of them.
Ruth Ellis shot her lover, and paid the price. The title character in Alban Berg’s Lulu (9.80123-24) also shoots a man. She’s an unsavoury specimen, to say the least, presented as a snake in the opening scene and justifying that image throughout the rest of the plot. Devoid of moral beliefs, Lulu craves intimacy at every opportunity, leaving a collection of taunted males and a female in her wake. She weds a Dr. Schön who becomes jealous of her many admirers; some of these appear in Act 2 in what might appear a farcical scenario with characters, including the Athlete and the Schoolboy, hiding in various nooks and crannies in Lulu’s house. Dr Schön gives Lulu a gun and tells her to shoot herself; in the ensuing kerfuffle, Lulu shoots the Schoolboy by accident.
And if you want to know how Jack the Ripper brings this whole house of insanity tumbling down, you’ll have to explore the work a bit more for yourself, for it’s now on to Renaissance Italy and Lucrezia Borgia, the femme fatale portrayed in numerous artistic works. These include Donizetti’s opera Lucrezia Borgia (8.660257-58) in which the leading lady either kills her victims personally or inspires her jealous husband to do the deed for her. Having laced the wine of five unfortunates in the plot’s final scene, she tragically finds that a sixth has also drunk the concoction—her son. Here’s the moment of truth.
It’s the stepmother of the title character in Janáček’s opera Jenůfa (9.80943-44) who is the murderess, though Jenůfa herself briefly looks as though she’ll have to take the rap for infanticide. The curtain rises on a very knotty set of village relationships; Jenůfa has given birth out of wedlock to a child by Steva, who refuses to do the right thing by her and the baby; stepmother Kostelnička realises that Jenůfa will never get married in these circumstances and drowns the infant, tricking Jenůfa into believing that it died in its sleep. The following spring, the child’s body is discovered when the mill-stream’s icy surface begins to melt. Kostelnička dutifully confesses to the dirty deed and is carted off to jail. Here’s part of the mounting tension from the final act.
Richard Strauss’ Salome (ODE1168-2) finds the title character—a deranged teenage stepdaughter from biblical times—scheming to have the head of Jochanaan (John the Baptist) brought to her on a silver platter so that she can kiss his bloodied lips. Although she doesn’t wield the executioner’s sword herself, she might just as well have done so. Jochanaan has been held prisoner by Salome’s stepfather, Herod Antipas, whose lust for the girl runs a close second to Salome’s crazed infatuation with the Holy Man. When Herod sees Salome purring over the severed head, he orders her to be killed in disgust at her behaviour. A case of the pan calling the kettle black? Here’s part of the music from Salome’s disturbed scene that caused outrage at its first performances.
To end today’s rogues’ gallery, we transfer to ballet, Greek mythology and the story of Medea as presented in the play by Euripides. After helping Jason and the Argonauts capture the Golden Fleece in the land of Colchis, Medea fled with Jason on the promise that he would marry her; two sons were subsequently born; Jason then betrayed Medea by transferring his affections to the daughter of the King of Corinth. Medea’s response was to butcher the two children. Samuel Barber provided the music for a ballet that told the story. It went through several versions and titles before the composer eventually telescoped the score into one continuous movement titled Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance (8.559133). Here are the closing moments of the work. And be careful about who tucks you up into bed tonight…