The wickedest witches in opera

29 October 2021

It is the season of the witch and here at Welsh National Opera we have certainly paid full due to the witches over the years, performing many of the best witch-inclusive operas. From the obvious Hansel & Gretel and Macbeth, to Un ballo in maschera and Lohengrin.

During the 19th century in particular, there seemed to be a penchant for putting witches in opera; even if the opera was an adaptation of an existing story with no witch to be seen. There is an argument that this to ensure certain singers a main role despite their voice type and ability, but could it be just down to the fascination during that period for the Gothic in all its forms? Whatever the truth, unlike in musical theatre, these witches all tended to be bad.

The role of Ulrica in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera is billed as ‘a clairvoyant trouble-maker’, she prophesises the trouble ahead but can hardly be seen to be the cause of what happens next. Instead, it is the protagonists who get themselves into their unfortunate situations – but isn’t it always easier to blame someone else?

Likewise, in Wagner’s Lohengrin, Ortrud is traditionally seen as a witch in the pagan mould, believing in non-Christian gods and calling on them to deal the blows to her adversaries: ‘it is not for nothing that I am deeply versed in the darkest of arts’ [Act Two, Scene One]. Having cursed Elsa’s brother, and the rightful ruler – transforming him into a swan; she then sets out to deceive the good Elsa so that her husband, Telramund, can rule in their stead.

In Macbeth, Verdi’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s play, the Chorus take on the role of the witches, becoming in the process a major part of the storytelling, whose various prophesies anticipate the turn of events. In our Autumn 2016 production this plot device was crucial, as the Chorus coven lead both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth down the dark path to their ruin, but their appearance certainly wasn’t scene-stealing in a good way. The Chorus was split into three sets to represent the traditional coven of three, with their bald heads and exposed ribcages these crones certainly looked the part of evil twisted na’er-do-wells out to wreak destruction and Verdi’s music adds to the doom-laden atmosphere.

To most people, the wonderful (in a despicable way, of course) witch in Humperdinck’s Hansel & Gretel immediately springs to mind when discussing the best of opera’s witches. Although often played by mezzo-sopranos, in the WNO production we cast a tenor in the role; and playing on that pantomime feeling, the characterisation certainly entices the boos from the audience. With the baking of children into gingerbread statues and feeding up Hansel ready for the pot. Who can help but cheer on Gretel as she pushes the witch into her own oven?

One opera WNO hasn’t put on is Dvořák’s Rusalka which contains the witch to beat them all, well-known in the west as Baba Yaga, but in the opera known by the Czech, Ježibaba. This folkloric witchy icon, who lives in a roaming hut on chicken legs, here offers the heroine immortality in exchange for her voice – an interesting concept for an opera...

Whatever the reason for the witch, who doesn’t love to hate them all especially at this time of year.