Madness stalks and flows forth from opera. In a celebrated study, critic Herbert Lindenberger dubbed opera The Extravagant Art: "exceeding reasonable bounds," "given to excess." For Lindenberger, opera strays beyond sensible limits because it attempts, rashly and against all odds, to bring about a synthesis of music, poetry, drama, dance, and the visual arts; because its characters and concerns are larger than life; and because it is often costly to produce and to attend.
Opera also triggers immoderation and eccentricity in those who love it. Its admirers are not merely "fans" but "fanatics." Those two extra syllables carry a reproachful charge, transforming "an ardent devotee" into "a person motivated by an extreme, unreasoning enthusiasm." Dig deeper, and things go from bad to worse: "from the Latin fanaticus, inspired by orgiastic rites." Wayne Koestenbaum argued in The Queen's Throat that "a taste for opera is sometimes a symbol for diseased passions." He explored opera's appeal for those who are outcast, "queer" by temperament or appetite, even "hysterical."
Hysteria and lunacy are mainstays of the operatic stage. Think of Donizetti's Lucia and Anna Bolena, Bellini's Elvira (I puritani) and Imogene (Il pirata), Thomas's Ophélie (Hamlet). Women enact opera's most florid and fêted mad scenes, and logically so, at least from a linguistic perspective. "Hysterical," after all, derives from the Greek hustera ("womb"), the organ from which women's purported mental weakness was once thought to arise. "Lunatic" is from the Latin luna ("moon"), which waxes and wanes like the supposedly baneful womanly cycles it seemed to influence.
Still, opera does not lack for its share of crazed gentlemen. Handel's Orlando (1733) is but one of the scores of operas based on the chivalric epic Orlando furioso (Mad Roland, 1532) by Ludovico Ariosto, a poet at the Italian court of Ferrara. Chirpy, positivistic accounts of the Renaissance stress the era's exaltation of reason. But like his contemporary Erasmus, author of The Praise of Folly, Ariosto never lost sight of the limits of the human intellect. A man of faith as well as an accomplished humanist, Ariosto shared Saint Paul's dim view of worldly wisdom: "If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God."
In both Ariosto's poem and Handel's opera, Orlando is the greatest of Charlemagne's warriors. Pious and gallant, he also has a Renaissance man's expert knowledge of languages and letters. Still, Orlando's overweening love for the pagan princess Angelica leads him to neglect his soldierly duties. The opening scenes of Handel's opera depict Orlando torn between the conflicting claims of martial glory and love, which the magus Zoroastro brands as "effeminati sensi" or "womanly sentiments." Zoroastro later conflates love with madness, a "sightless god" (Cupid was traditionally shown wearing a blindfold) who leads human minds to ruin without the guide of reason's light.
Orlando's madness unfolds in similar fashion in Orlando furioso and Handel's libretto. Angelica falls in love with Medoro, and the two memorialize their union by carving their names and rapturous poems on laurel trees and in grottos. Confronted with proof of Angelica's love for another man, Orlando goes mad. Ariosto's poem underscores that the paladin is undone, in part, by his erudition. Medoro's poem is in Arabic‹one among the "many, many languages" that Orlando knew well. Fine man of letters that he is, Orlando tries to shield himself from the truth by invoking the conventions of pastoral literature, desperate to believe that "Medoro" is a pseudonym for himself. This effort unhinges his mind, and he embarks on a bestial, murderous rampage.
Elsewhere in Orlando furioso, characters invite madness by imagining that their reality corresponds to what they read in books: that the flighty Angelica, for example, resembles the chaste and aloof "angelic lady" of courtly poetry. Cervantes' Don Quixote and his many operatic progeny (by Conti, Paisiello, Massenet, and others) go dotty in their quest to live according to the customs and ethos of chivalric texts‹Orlando furioso among them. Whether inspired by love, letters, or both, folly, it seems, is inescapable.
Ariosto heals Orlando's madness by means of the unlikeliest deus ex machina: a knight who travels to the moon and retrieves a phial containing Orlando's vaporous wits. In Handel's opera, Zoroastro sprinkles a celestial liquid on Orlando's face and undoes the harm the paladin wrought, restoring his victims to life. Their pleas and confessions of common frailty bring Orlando back from the brink. The endings of both epic and opera suggest that madness is stanched only precariously, always poised to erupt without the far-fetched intercessions of heroes on winged steeds and benign, all-powerful sorcerers.
Orlando's travails remind us that the story of Orpheus, opera's founding myth, is itself a tale of a man's folly. Grieving for the fallen Eurydice, Orpheus so moves the gods of the underworld with his song that they return Eurydice to life‹provided that Orpheus not look upon her before leaving the realm of the dead. In the poet Vergil's telling, Orpheus is overcome by "dementia" and wheels around to gaze at Eurydice. He "raves" like an animal after losing her a second time until the Bacchantes, priestesses of the anarchic god Dionysus, tear him to pieces. Monteverdi's La favola d'Orfeo (1607-09), one of the earliest operas, has come down to us with a happier ending, but its first version followed the Vergilian narrative, concluding with the Bacchantes' ominous approach.
Cavalli's L'Egisto (1643) also features a title character driven mad by love, who in fact imagines in his delirium that he is Orpheus gone to the Underworld to rescue Eurydice. Stradella's Il Trespolo tutore (1679) is another opera populated by batty men: Nino, who grows insane when his passion is rejected; and Ciro, a madman who is healed by love.
Last season, New York City Opera audiences saw Mozart's rarely performed La finta giardiniera (1775), a youthful work that explores the themes of emotional chaos, blindness, and (yes) madness that Mozart would revisit to devastating effect in his collaborations with Lorenzo da Ponte. (Beaumarchais' play Le mariage de Figaro bears the revealing subtitle La folle journée, "The Mad Day.") While Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosí fan tutte have no explicit mad scenes, Finta giardiniera has two: for the heroine Sandrina and for her lover, Belfiore. Folly so pervades this extraordinary work that director Mark Lamos set it in a sanitarium, where the characters could pour forth their obsessions and confusion like patients in group therapy.
While 19th-century opera is most famous for mad heroines, it hardly lacks for crazed heroes. Like Nietzsche, Donizetti suffered from insanity caused by late-stage syphilis. His Torquato Tasso (1833), based on works by Goethe and Byron, depicts the Renaissance poet (a successor of Ariosto) as a Romantic hero broken by the intrigues of petty courtiers and doomed love. In the opera's final scene, the baritone protagonist sings, "Those who imprisoned me call me mad, but the heart is not mad: the heart has its own reason." (The historical Tasso was mentally ill and spent many years in confinement, for his own safety and following assaults on others.)
Remorseful, demented kings dominate two of the 19th century's most powerful operas: Verdi's Macbeth (1847-65) and Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov (1869-72). Darkness preys upon their minds from their first appearances. Macbeth recoils at the witches' prophecy and has guilty visions of daggers; Boris enters in triumph but gripped by a mysterious foreboding. Following the crime that brings him to the throne, Macbeth sees the ghost of the murdered Banquo, while apparitions of the slain Tsarevich Dimitri haunt Boris at his every turn and drive him to his demise.
In many respects, the 20th century dawned under the sign of madness, with Freud's vision of the human psyche as irredeemably divided against itself. Alban Berg's Wozzeck (1922), with its hapless protagonist driven to murder and suicide by the unrelenting brutality that surrounds him, anticipates psychologist Abraham Maslow's anguished questioning of what it means to be "healthy" in a sick society: "What shall we call the well-adjusted slave?" Madness slithers through Benjamin Britten's operas: the violence, rage, and hints of predatory desire that eat away at the sanity of Peter Grimes (1945); the babble and flash of "brutality" that stain Billy Budd's otherwise angelic title character (1951-60); and the "mad spirit" Puck who presides over the "night-rule" of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960).
Britten's Shakespearean opera ends with Puck, a character of supernatural powers, releasing the audience from its illusions: "You have but slumber'd here / while these visions did appear." Handel's Orlando, too, is rescued from passion's thrall by the magus Zoroastro and hails his return to reason and triumph "over himself and love." By their blatant contrivance, both dénouements invite puzzlement. Are the minds of men and women really as sound as these neat endings imply? And why would anyone choose sanity, when madness gives rise to such poignant and mesmerizing stuff‹indeed, to opera itself?