This is the latest in the love series.
These operas from the twentieth century are about love, too, but it is love seen in a rather warped, Freudian way. Love is often a perversion, a mental disturbance that is seldom put right.
Richard Strauss started it all with his opera Salome. Salome falls in love with the prophet Johanahan, otherwise known as John the Baptist. Nothing is so white as his body. Nothing is so black as his hair. Nothing is so red as his lips. Salome’s mother wants him dead because he is spreading scandal about her. Her motives are purely political and would fit into the romantic political context of Verdi. Salome is caught up in a purely sexual obsession—she simply wants to kiss his lips. (Apparently she wants nothing else from him, since cutting off his head would obviously render that impossible.) When she has achieved this goal upon the decapitated head of her beloved, she complains that his lips have a bitter taste.
The contrast to Massenet’s Herodiade (1881) could not be more complete. In that opera John and Salome enjoy a traditional romantic love and die together. There is no dance, and of course, there is no perverse obsession. Strauss has brought us into the twentieth century where love is more likely to be a perversion than a romantic ideal.
There are two popular twentieth-century operas with similar thematic material: Káťa Kabanová (1921) by Janáček and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1932) by Shostakovich. Both involve unhappily married women who have affairs, both are driven to their unhappy state by interfering in-laws, and both leap into a river to escape their misery. Káťa commits suicide because her lover leaves for Siberia. Katarina kills herself immediately after murdering her rival. The similarity of the plots is striking. They also share the problem of staging a suicide that involves leaping into a river. It isn’t easy to make this look realistic.
A lot of people like Káťa Kabanová, but the first time I saw it, prior to surtitles, I found it quite boring in spite of the presence of Evelyn Lear in the mother part. However, I must say that productions of these kinds of sordid operas make an enormous difference in the impression on the viewer. The first production of Lady Macbeth that I saw was intensely sexual, emphasizing with visual elements all the powerful sexiness of the score. The second time in Pamela Rosenberg’s version they seemed to be trying to hide it. To what end? Káťa is more like Madame Bovary, unhappy and confused, while Katarina is a wild and wicked woman whose wickedness should properly be flaunted.
I’ve already commented on the love element in Barber’s Vanessa. This type of martyrdom for love I can’t find in other operas. La gioconda sacrifices herself for her lover’s happiness, but I can think of no one who just sits there waiting. Ariadne whines a lot at least--she can’t figure out how to get off the island—but Vanessa has no such excuse.
Britten makes frequent and varied use of the love theme in his operas which may go a long way toward explaining his continuing popularity. Death in Venice (1973) is based on the story by Thomas Mann which is in turn based on an anecdote told to Mann by Gustav Mahler. It was Mahler who fell in love with a boy on the Lido beach, lending the aura of celebrity to the story.
An older man, Aschenbach, notices a teen-age boy on the beach and falls wildly in love with him. The boy is a mime part, a danced part. It isn’t necessary for him to speak, but it is necessary for him to be very beautiful. The boy is always discretely accompanied by his mother. Plague comes to Venice, and Aschenbach stays and dies.
We can’t find our way to sensible loving, at least not as entertainment. The theme of cultural conflict between lovers is common in musicals. The plot of Madame Butterfly was successfully recast into Miss Saigon. West Side Story juxtaposes Puerto Rican immigrants against white Americans. South Pacific is about racial prejudice as a barrier to love. Then there's Phantom of the Opera which I suppose is about prejudice against the handicapped. I suppose. These things don't seem to inspire operas.
However perverse the love theme may become in these modern operas, they are still superior to most of their contemporaries and continue to increase in popularity. A perverse love plot is far better than no love plot at all.