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What Many Don't Understand About Tragedies

There are many forms of opera. You have your comedies - the 'opera buffas' that make us chuckle with amusement; you have your romantic operas - stories of lovers and whatnot; and of course, tragedies. Tragedies, as the name indicates, have tragic stories. The art of the tragedy was born, like most things, in Ancient Greece, with the works of Aeschylus (a tragedian whom Wagner admired greatly), many of which have been the basis for operas: for example, 'Antigonae' by Carl Orff. Tragedies usually end in the death of the protagonist(s). Some tragic operas include Tristan und Isolde (an article about which you can read on this website!), La Traviata, and Lucia di Lammermoor (which we will discuss further on). These operas oftentimes bring tears to their audiences - particularly the former of the three - because of the exquisite combination of brilliant drama in the libretto and touchingly heartbreaking music to accompany it. This article will examine not the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles, nor the operas of Wagner and Orff, but instead, it will discuss two tragedies that are oftentimes misinterpreted. By doing so, it will present an argument that extends beyond the world of opera - to Euripedes, Shakespeare, and Wilde, themselves.

Werther, by Jules Massenet, and Lucia di Lammermoor, by Gaetano Donizetti, are two of the most commonly performed tragic operas in the repertoire. The roles of Werther and Charlotte, and Lucia and Edgardo respectively, are some of the most endearing and challenging roles to sing. The plots of these two operas are based on novels. 'Lucia' is based on Sir Walter Scott's 1819 historical novel 'The Bride of Lammermoor', and 'Werther' is based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's novel 'Die Leiden des jungen Werthers' (The Sorrows of Young Werther). In these two operas - and many others - the protagonists are driven mad by love.

Or so we have come to believe.

Although it is often nice to believe that Werther and Lucia felt such passionate love that they were driven insane solely by it, it is hard to. According to Jonas Kaufmann, one of the great Werthers of our time, the character is not simply a regular fellow with an over-intense love for a woman; rather he was in a troubled mental state before even meeting the woman.

Herein lies the drama.

Werther was not suicidal or greatly problematic before meeting Charlotte, but he clearly had a psychological or psychiatric illness of some sort. This must have been true, in large part, for the many young men who committed suicide after reading Goethe's novel in the 19th century - this was an epidemic of sorts that lead to the book being banned in several places.

The same is true for Lucia. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that Lucia was in a troubled mental state at the very beginning of the opera - after meeting Edgardo, but before her famous 'mad scene'. In the aria 'Regnava nel silenzio', Lucia describes seeing a shadow - a ghost, basically - of a girl murdered by a jealous ancestor of her lover, Edgardo. Most have understood this to be symbolic; that Lucia is poetically describing her feelings through metaphor and other descriptive language. Alas, this is not true; in Act 1, we get the very first glimpse of Lucia's mind drifting into madness. Many refuse to believe this, saying that it takes away from the beauty of the plot, making the love felt by Lucia for Edgardo seem diminished. On the contrary, this take on the story makes the story more realistic, and thus more believable. We see the characters as humans; and suddenly, the love itself seems more human. We see the pain of the individual characters: Lucia descending further into madness, conflicted by love and family; Edgardo, in what is arguably the greatest tragedy of the plot, doesn't know of Lucia's state (the same way, in 'La Traviata', Alfredo knows naught of Violetta's disease) - he fights for her and dies for her, ignorant of her mental weakness (one might argue that Edgardo is mentally unstable as well, committing suicide following Lucia's death at the end of the opera); Enrico is caught between love and hate; Arturo, the man to which Lucia is betrothed, is murdered as a result of a psychiatric illness of which all are ignorant.

The acceptance of this element to the plot makes the story not only more realistic, but more tragic as a result.

Therein lies the tragedy.

Alkis Karmpaliotis

July 24, 2020

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Thank you, Alki. I agree with your opinion on the underlying mental state of the protagonists. However, I do believe that extreme stress can lead otherwise ‘stable’ individuals to behave erratically - not sure if that can be classified as ‘unmasking pathology’.

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