UK-Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Le Nozze Di Figaro at the Royal Opera House in London
UK-Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Le Nozze Di Figaro at the Royal Opera House in London © Getty  /  Robbie Jack

The 5 most twisted family stories in opera

Love, glory, and small family murders. On an opera stage, anything seems possible: the best and the worst.

Ah, family drama... Parents and children who love each other then hate each other, brothers and sisters who clash or reunite: family drama existed long before cinema and television series, before Darth Vader's infamous "I am your father" or the family rivalries between the Starks and the Lannisters!

Figaro, parents that came out of nowhere

The Marriage of Figaro, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1786

The only happy ending of our selection: that of Figaro and his parents that appear out of the blue. As the Count Almaviva prepares to celebrate his union with the older Marcellina, she discovers with surprise that Figaro is none other than her natural son.  

All's well that ends well, for Figaro. He may marry his true love, Susanna, and better yet: he is now an heir! In the blink of an eye, he whom everyone thought to be a simple servant becomes son of a wealthy family, and the titles of nobility are turned completely on their heads...

Typical of its time, the socially and philosophically revolutionary Lumières, Mozart's opera was premiered in 1786, several years after the theatrical work first created by Beaumarchais, in Paris. "Figaro has killed nobility!", allegedly claimed Danton, a major figure of the French Revolution.

Carlos, in love with his stepmother

Don Carlos, Giuseppe Verdi, 1867

This tale is tragic. A peace accord between Spain and France is finally signed, and the two nations seek to unite their heirs, the handsome Don Carlos and the Princess Elisabeth.

Through a fortunate (or unfortunate) coincidence, the promised couple meet before their wedding and fall helplessly in love. However, in a twist of fate it is Philippe II, king of Spain and father of Carlos, who decides to marry the young Elisabeth. Don Carlos finds himself enamoured of his own stepmother.  

Fact or fiction? Verdi's opera was in fact inspired by one of the darkest legends of history, that of Philippe II. The Spanish sovereign was depicted by his contemporaries, and enemies, as a particularly cruel, tyrannical, capable of imprisoning and even poisoning his own son, Carlos. 

The real Carlos, however, was far from the handsome character depicted by Verdi in his work. Quite the contrary, the real Don Carlos was a stutterer, unattractive, and particularly psychologically unstable, prone to violent attacks. 

Lucrèce, falling for her own son

Lucrezia Borgia, Gaetano Donizetti, 1833

Literature, theatre, cinema, television series and even video games: the decadent stories of the Borgia family have inspired many and have reached the four corners of the globe.  

It was Victor Hugo who, in 1833, started it all. With his work Lucrèce Borgia he depicts a cruel and deadly woman, last in line of the Borgia family. As if that were not enough, she is also incestuous and falls in love with her own (unsurprisingly illegitimate) son. The story ends badly, since Lucrèce accidentally poisons her own heir and kills herself at his feet. 

This story of incest and infanticide clearly appealed greatly to the Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti. He quickly put to music Lucrèce Borgia, only months after the premiere in Paris of a work of the same name. This enthusiasm, however, also earned him an unfortunate legal battle with Victor Hugo.

Salomé murderous parents

Salomé, Richard Strauss, 1905

Previously, on Salomé. Herodias killed her first husband to marry the king Herod. She now lives by his side, at the royal palace, with her daughter Salomé. 

Salomé is terribly beautiful. She turns heads wherever she goes, even that of her stepfather. Only one man can resist her charms: Iokanaan, the prophet, far more seduced by virtue and the power of the truth than the sensual charms of Salomé.

Such an insult is unacceptable for the young princess, and when her stepfather begs her to dance for him, she accepts under one condition: that he bring her the head of Iokanaan on a silver platter. The king obliges but, horrified at the sight of Salomé kissing the lips of the dead prophet, he finally decides to have his stepdaughter executed. 

A charming family story that can be found (simplified) in the Bible. As for the longer and more detailed version, it was written in 1891 by the irreverent Oscar Wilde, author of a work in one act, Salomé, from which Strauss drew great inspiration. 

Iphigénie, le pinnacle of horror

Iphigénie en Tauride, Christoph Willibald Gluck, 1779

King Agamemnon and the Queen Clytemnestra have a son Orestes and a daughter Iphigenia. Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon and, to avenge her father, Orestes kills his mother Clytemnestra.

The matricidal son then flees and lands on the Tauride peninsula, where his sister Iphigenia resides. However, as priestess and guardian of Tauride, Iphigenia is obligated to condemn to death any and all who dare set foot on the land... 

These adventures are those depicted by Gluck, but in order to fully understand the origin of this family drama, we must turn to Greek mythology and more precisely the Trojan War. Agamemnon joins the expedition in charge of rescuing the beautiful Helen, but discovers before his departure that his troops have fallen prey to the fury of a goddess, Artemis.

The king offers to the goddess Artemis his daughter Iphigenia, but his wife Clytemnestra cannot forgive such a sacrifice. Upon returning from the Trojan War, she kills her husband Agamemnon, thus instigating this series of murders.

Lucrèce, Salomé, Clytemnestra… Cruel, unjust, and murderous women. But rest assured, there are also far more flattering portrayals of women in opera! 

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