I would have liked to have known those early 20th century starlets who were fought over to the point of duels. Their lives were often similar to the parts they played. They were phenomena, sacred monsters. To represent the fatal Traviata, the Second Empire courtesan who devours fortunes, I chose the incredible Mercedes Capsir, who appeared as her on stage at the age of sixteen! Enjoy her stunning voice in this beautiful recording from 1921 .
We also have Lady Macbeth – Shakespeare’s criminal enabler – played by Elena Souliotis, a Greek diva who damaged her voice in trying to fly too close to the flame that was Maria Callas. Someone with quite a different level of stamina was Montserrat Caballé, who we hear here playing Elisabeth de Valois, caught in a fatal love triangle between Prince Carlos and his father, the dark Philip II of Spain. Passion would send them in turn to prison, to the convent, and to the grave.
In order to live independently, Carmen chose sexual liberation. In 1954, Otto Preminger made a swing remake with a diverse cast. In the 18th century, Manon Lescaut paid for her freedom by becoming a sex worker. Whilst Massenet imagined Lescaut as a bourgeois drawing room maid, Puccini brings tears to our eyes when, condemned to exile in the New World, she dies from loving her lover Des Grieux too much. It is the same destructive passion that the shooting stars of pop, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Britney Spears and Tina Turner, proclaim. Four sublime voices, four firebrands in life. Some have survived the trials of success, others have not.
But let’s start with Poppea, who inspired Nero to do his worst. In the Baroque period, powerful women were witches and could transform themselves, much like Sia does today. Their beauty was a matter of fatal obsession and dying for love is a common theme. Circe is abandoned by Ulysses; Cleopatra is Julius Caesar’s temptress; Neris is poisoned by Medea; Delilah is a seductress; Phaedra is the incestuous mother who causes her stepson’s death in Rameau’s beautiful opera. All of them experience demonic devastation, Gluck-style.
There are also sacrificial virgins and sublime deviants. These are Herodias, Lily Marlen and Salome, and men like to consume them as they’re dying – under the knife of Jack the Ripper for Lulu (in an opera that includes the use of twelve-tone rows); at the stake, like Wagner’s impressive Brünnhilde; or in the paroxysms of orgasm for Richard Strauss.