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The 'mad scene' is a staple of 19th century operas by the likes of Donizetti and Bellini. Essentially, it’s an excuse for the prima donna to show off her vocal acrobatics. And to get covered in blood. So a fun night out for all. Here are seven of the most over the top, bananas 'mad scenes' of all time.
What’s a 'mad scene'?
So pleased you asked. In the operas of the 19th century – especially those by Donizetti and Bellini – the prima donna had to have a show-stopper of a scene.
And, more often than not, the composers contrived to send their heroines mad as an excuse to write fiendishly difficult arias and to let their prima donnas completely own the stage for 20 minutes or so.
In short, there’s a lot of this:
Here are seven of our favourite examples of female characters losing it and completely owning the stage.
1 Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti
The mad scene to end all mad scenes. In Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, the heroine is being forced to marry a man she doesn’t love for political reasons. But she’s in love with someone else and it’s all a big old mess. Is it any wonder she feels the strain and ends up wandering around the battlements in her PJs.
2 Il Pirata by Bellini
What do you mean you’re not familiar with the work? This opera, premiered in 1827, included a mad scene that was made famous by Maria Callas. The plot is labyrinthine, but, in a nutshell – it tells the story of Ernesto, the Duke of Caldora, and his wife Imogene. A former lover of Imogene’s arrives on the scene and all hell breaks loose. Unsurprisingly, Imogene reaches her wits’ end, poor love.
3 Anna Bolena by Donizetti
You might not know Donizetti’s opera, but you’ll know the story – this opera follows Anne Boleyn in her final days as wife of Henry VIII and queen of England. We all know how that turns out. Here’s Anna struggling with life a bit in the Tower of London.
4 Idomeneo by Mozart
Electra gets a bad press in most retellings of her story – including this one. She’s in love with Idamante, the son of the king of Crete, but sadly, he’s in love with Ilia, the daughter of the King of Crete. So, well, she loses it:
5 I Puritani by Bellini
In Bellini’s opera, Elvira has promised to marry Riccardo, the leader of the Puritans. But, while he’s been away, she’s fallen in love with Arturo, a Royalist and made plans to marry him. But Arturo has to flee – leaving Elvira all dressed up with no one to wed. But this one (unusually!) has a happy ending – Arturo comes back and all prisoners are pardoned. General rejoicing.
TL; DR version: stuff happens. Woman goes mad. But it’s all fine in the end.
6 La Sonnambula by Bellini
The role of Amina was made famous by the likes of Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland.
Amina is to be married to Elvino – but when she sleepwalks into a strange man’s room at night, Elvino (and indeed everyone else – because, patriarchy), doubts her loyalty.
Much drama and ornamented singing ensues.
7 Linda di Chamounix by Donizetti
Included simply because the main character is called ‘Linda’. Do you even need a plot synopsis for this one? You get the idea – woman is in love, something goes wrong, she loses her mind and dies or – as in this case – all turns out fine, she recovers, there’s a wedding and massive rousing chorus to end on. Ah, opera.
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