Deadly divas: The baddest, sexiest women in opera

As Anna Nicole takes centre stage, Mark Pappenheim charts lust, adultery and even murder among the femme fatales

"A celebrity story of our times that includes extreme language, drug abuse and sexual content." So reads the tag for Mark-Anthony Turnage's new opera, Anna Nicole, which opens at the Royal Opera House next week. There's nothing there that should surprise anyone – at least anyone who's actually heard of the opera's heroine, Anna Nicole Smith.

Billed by the ROH as "an international sex symbol" and "a notorious tabloid fixture", the American Ms Smith was, it seems, a former pole-dancer who married a geriatric Texan oil billionaire, lost out on his money when he threw in his Stetson shortly afterwards without leaving a will, succumbed to depression, drug dependency and debt, and died of an overdose in 2007, aged just 39. She also looked pretty good without her clothes on. The ROH is clearly intent on chasing the red tops these days, witness its recent bunking-up with The Sun to offload discounted tickets to a night of fiery, hot sex, aka Mozart's Don Giovanni, and online viral campaign based around the mock reality TV show Danny Knows Best. Red-top readers may recall Smith's bust size (helpfully given in the ROH brochure as 36DD), and may even have some of her Playboy centrefolds still pinned up on their bedroom walls.

The combination of wicked women and sex is, of course, nothing new in opera – just check out our gallery of hot-blooded heroines shown here. And for every supine Madama Butterfly, there is a scheming minx who will leave a trail of devastated men in her wake.

But if femmes fatales are nothing new, the depiction of the sexual act on the operatic stage has certainly grown explicit. Who knows what Dido and Aeneas or Dr Faust and Gretchen got up to in bed, and certainly no composer previously felt the need to show us (nor would any papal censor or Lord Chamberlain have let them). Given the subject matter and librettist – Richard Thomas, co-creator of the musical Jerry Springer: The Opera, which provoked a record 55,000 complaints when it was broadcast by the BBC in 2005 – anyone might be forgiven for supposing that Anna Nicole was dreamt up by some salivating Covent Garden committee specifically to attract maximum media attention. In which case, it's worked. Never mind the music, just count the column inches.

What has mostly got the press all steamed up is the prospect of flurries of four-letter words and a scene in which our heroine felates her octogenarian husband while he sits in his wheelchair. Ahead of the show's opening, it's difficult to imagine how this might be quantitatively or qualitatively different from the fellatio scene in Thomas Adès's debut opera, Powder Her Face, which aroused similar press excitement at the time of its 1995 premiere (but then, it did open in Cheltenham, where "oral sex" was perhaps still a phrase people found it hard to get their mouths around).

Writing of Powder Her Face some years after its headline-grabbing debut, the current edition of the New Penguin Opera Guide regretfully observes that "at the time of its premiere the sensationalism and sexual explicitness of the subject matter overshadowed the craft and imaginative power of the score". While he's doubtless as happy as anyone to see "house full" signs up over Covent Garden, one suspects that Mark-Anthony Turnage is hoping that future opera guides will say much the same about Anna Nicole in not too many years to come.

Anna Nicole, Royal Opera House, London WC2, from 17 Feb ( roh.org.uk)

Delilah

As in the Bible, so, in Saint-Saëns's 1877 opera, Delilah seduces the Hebrew hero Samson into divulging the secret source of his strength – his hair – then shaves his head while he's slumped in post-coital stupor, so her fellow Philistines can imprison him. Stupidly, she omits to tell them to keep his hair cut, so his strength eventually returns and he kills everyone, himself included.

The Duchess

Based upon the scandalous sex life of serial adulteress Margaret, Duchess of Argyll – photographed in flagrante with the "headless man" – Thomas Adès's 1995 opera, Powder Her Face, asks its lead soprano to sing, or rather, hum, through music's first notated act of fellatio. (With a little imagination, we can work out what caused her subsequent coughing fit.)

Lucrezia Borgia

The favourite love child of Pope Alexander VI, and rumoured lover of both her father and brother, the leading lady of Donizetti's 1833 opera (newly staged at English National Opera) is a serial killer who poisons her own son by mistake, just as she runs out of antidote.

Katerina Ismailova

The bored young wife of a rich Russian merchant, is the heroine of Shostakovich's 1934 opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, a work which infuriated Stalin. She has a fling with a workman, poisons her father-in-law when he finds out, then bludgeons her husband to death and bungs his body in the cellar. When the smell of rotting flesh alerts the police, she is arrested and sent to Siberia, where she eventually drowns herself, dragging her ex-lover's new squeeze in after her.

Medea

A mythological role much beloved of the fiery Greek soprano Maria Callas (below), the heroine of Luigi Cherubini's 1797 opera offers dramatic proof that Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Rejected by Jason in favour of a younger, sexier, wealthier model, the sorceress Medea first presents the poor girl with a poisoned cloak and crown, then butchers her own two young sons and presents their bloody corpses to the doubly distraught Jason, before flying off in a fiery chariot surrounded by Furies.

Violetta Valéry

The same character that Greta Garbo played in Camille, the heroine of Verdi's La traviata ("the woman gone astray") is now seen as the classic operatic exemplar of the bad girl made good, a "tart with a heart" who gives up her only hope of happiness to save the good name of her lover's sister. But, like Turnage's Anna Nicole, Violetta was based upon a real-life (and only recently deceased) figure. Verdi intended his opera to be a contemporary work, though the censors insisted on backdating it by 150 years.

Manon Lescaut

Heroine of the Abbé Prévost's romantic novel of 1731, and the subject of operas by Massenet and Puccini (as well as Auber and Henze), Manon is opera's original "material girl", a pretty young flirt who genuinely loves the dashing young Chevalier des Grieux, but simply can't resist ditching him whenever some older, richer man dangles his wealth before her eyes. In the end, though, she's condemned to be transported as a common harlot and dies either on the road to Le Havre (Massenet) or lost in the Louisiana swamps (Puccini).

Lulu

A magnet to men, the enigmatic heroine of Alban Berg's second opera is based upon the same Wedekind play as the 1928 Louise Brooks silent movie, Pandora's Box. It revels in an uninhibited sexuality that inadvertently causes the deaths of her first and second husbands (struck down by a heart attack and driven to suicide, respectively), before she shoots her third husband dead herself. She then escapes from jail by impersonating her lesbian lover, and finally meets her own death in London at the hands of Jack the Ripper.

Poppea Sabina

The first known opera to treat a historical, rather than a mythological, subject, Claudio Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea (premiered in Venice in 1643) is a cynically realistic, raunchily sexy and richly Shakespearean account of Poppea's relentless rise from sharing Nero's bed to sharing his imperial throne. En route, she ruthlessly eliminates the famous philosopher Seneca (driven to suicide), Nero's first wife, and her own ex-lover (both exiled).

Salome

The operatic sex scandal of its day, Richard Strauss's 1905 Salome follows Oscar Wilde's post-biblical account of the spoilt little Judaean princess who lusts after the imprisoned John the Baptist and, failing to coax him into bed, settles for having just his head on a plate instead. But, much as he enjoyed seeing her strip off in the opera's climactic Dance of the Seven Veils, watching his teenage stepdaughter plant a long, lingering kiss on the dead prophet's lips finally proves too much even for the depraved Herod to stomach and he orders his soldiers to crush her to death beneath their shields.

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