Two modern operas

It’s been almost a month since we saw Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth and Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites (in Chicago) in the same week.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District is an early-ish work by Shostakovich, the cause of his first denunciation by Stalin and so one of the last works he composed without any consciousness of the Communist Party looking over his shoulder. I don’t usually buy opera on CD (unlike J.) so despite being a longtime Shostakovich fan I’d never heard the music to this piece before. It’s a very effective work, and was persuasively brought off by the COC. The plot is a rather amoral and cynical satirical take on provincial Russian life. The title character (Katerina Izmailova) murders her father-in-law and then her husband when they get between her and her lover. She and her lover are caught (it seems through her own foolishness in confessing the crimes to a police force not really interested in investigating them) and they are both sent off to Siberia. Her lover betrays her with another woman, and the opera ends with Katerina throwing herself and her rival to their deaths in a Siberian river. It’s not the sort of piece where one develops any kind of sympathy for any of the characters–they are all pretty nasty pieces of work–though Katerina is portrayed sympathetically up to a point as a victim of the oppressive conditions of provincial Russian life.

Poulenc’s Dialogues, written some two decades later, is an altogether different kind of work. The opera derives its story from a fictionalized account of the martyrdom of the members of a real Carmelite order during the French Revolution. It’s a study of the half-dozen main characters (the remaining Carmelite nuns are chorus), exploring the psychology of religious vocation and of martyrdom in complex ways that focus more on the human element than on intricacies of doctrine. Despite the undeniable effectiveness of the Shostakovich piece, it is this opera that lingers after the event.

We have the Met opera Faust on in the background as I write this. The music is indeed very likeable.