Great Opera, part 2

Poulenc, Les Dialogues des Carmélites (1957).
Santa Fe Opera (1999). Based on the stories of Carmelite nuns guillotined in Paris during the reign of terror led by Robespierre in the French Revolution, this opera’s music inexorably builds a sense of pre-Existential fate. There’s not even momentary diversion for the audience from knowing how it’s going to turn out, but what carries the drama of the opera is the contrast between the Mother Superior who curses God for abandoning her and the novice who goes to her death steadied by her faith. Too much Flannery O’Connor for me. After Flaubert you would think in the twentieth century there would be no room for religiously fixated art, but then look at Poulenc who started as a Dadaist, or Olivier Messiaen.

Bright Sheng, Madame Mao (2003), libretto by Colin Graham. Review by Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times for 2003-7-28. I agree with Tommasini’s review that the “most imaginative stroke” of this opera is juxtaposing the older and younger Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) characters with two singers, telling the story of Jiang Qing from the perspective of her suicide in prison in 1991 looking back to her progression from Ibsen-esque actress to wife of Mao to driver of the dehumanizing terror of the Gang of Four, but I did not have as much trouble with the mixing of musical idioms. It would be great to hear this opera again, now on the tails of hearing operas where I did find the mixing of musical idioms to be a problem – Tan Dun’s “Tea” and “The First Emperor” – really disappointing because he’s written so much other great music.

Peter Lieberson, Ashoka’s Dream (1997) in Santa Fe, with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. As often happens, the aesthetic significance to me of this opera stems from the way it crosses several threads. I liked the “big” idea of the opera: Ashoka, emperor of India through conquest, being transformed from Chandrashoka (cruel Ashoka) to Dharmashoka (pious Ashoka) after realizing the horror of the 100,000 deaths his troops had inflicted so he could become emperor, thereafter dedicating his government to promoting mercy, peace, and Buddhism. But how much better if Lieberson had done more to bring the story forward to a critique of American empire and promoting modern unilateral disarmament and humanitarianism. The music was epic, but I have to say I enjoyed Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s singing even more in her recordings of Bach cantatas and of Lieberson’s own “Neruda Songs” premiered in 2005 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting.

Leave a Reply