Many operatic divas dream of dying onstage (only in character, of course!). Luckily for them and for many of us opera fans (whose love for operatic death scenes is second only to our love for spectacular mad scenes), some composers are quite willing to kill off his stars than others regardless of their vocal range. Following are three bloodiest operas in term of principal characters fatality rate (supposed war deaths among supernumeraries are excluded, of course):
Francis Poulenc’s Les dialogues des Carmelites: Body count: 17 (practically the entire principal cast of 16 nuns and novices plus one lay noble) First performed at Teatro alla Scala on 26 January 1957, this haunting musical drama is even more disturbing because it is based on a true story of the mass execution of 16 Carmelite nuns in Compiegne, France, at the height of the Reign of Terror in the summer of 1794. The story as preserved in Georges Bernanos’ play (on which the opera’s libretto is based on), is slightly altered for dramatic effects. It follows the invented character of Blanche de la Force, the fearful young noblewoman who is so afraid of everything that she seeks the spiritual comfort of Carmelite sisterhood. A rather turbulent spiritual journey ensues with various nuns experiencing faith loss and faith refound, tested by disease and the prevailing political wind until all are given a choice in the end to die by their conviction or to live without it. One death of this nature is an overkill… Sixteen (plus one of a more natural sort) and it is a virtual spiritual genocide!
The Dialogues of the Carmelites is a period opera with unfortunate timeless applications regardless of one’s religion (or the lack thereof). An intolerant tyranny tends to strengthen the will of its opposition rather than to persuade, and fanaticism is devious regardless of whether there is a religion involve or not. The opera also boasts one of the most musically traumatic final scenes ever composed. The seriousness of its drama is not all that fitting for whimsical occasions like the Halloween, I’m afraid, but in term of deathliness (yes, I mean ‘deathliness’ rather than deadliness. Stay tune for next music essay installment to see the difference) among its principal cast, seventeen bodies take the cake by a long shot.
Alban Berg’s Lulu: Body count: 6 (practically the entire cast except for Jack the Ripper)
Based on Frank Wedekin’s psychological plays; Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904), Alban Berg’s Lulu premiered in 1937 and pretty much offended everyone into atonality. In a way one must hate the thing in order to love it, with all its wittily grotesque parody of the orderly disorder human nature and vises. Lulu the out-of-work dancer/actress is a serial widow whose husbands/lovers tend to get summarily dispatched from the living world as our anti-heroine climbs her spirally social ladder and only manage to find true love in an older lesbian Countess Geschwitz… just a bit before her ultimate encounter with London’s infamous Jack the Ripper.
The story is so immoral that it takes the bloody murder of the protagonist to restore the audience to any sense of morality after a night full of infidelity, lust, and shameless sensuality; you know, all the things that keep the police and the psychologist in full employ. And to make it worse, Berg’s music is the perfect mirror of its dramatic content; rigidly symmetrical and persistently formulaic (Second Viennese School in the strictest sense) in its cacophony of acoustical dissonance. It is an uncomfortable opera to attend at many levels, and it is mostly that that draws you back to listen for more in subsequent performance, thus proving the humanity of us opera-goers to the outside world. We gawk at gory train wrecks just as everyone else does!
Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtensk District/Katerina Izmailova: Body count: 4 (all but one principal)
Based on a short story by Nikolai Leskov, twenty four years old Katerina Lvovna was unhappily married off to the much older, richer, and infinitely snobbier Zinovy Borisich Izmailov. Her bored existence is perked when she found herself courted by Sergei, the handsome factory worker. The two rid themselves of Zinovy and his meddlesome father with the help of rat poison and a handy belt and earn a prison term in cold Siberia, where Katerina learns why long and levelheaded courtship is preferable to short and overly passionate ones.
Shostakovich’s musical setting of the story is even more disturbing for all the beautiful music he bestows upon the unapologetically morally lax Katerina in contrast to the rest of the cast. The opera was written in defiance of the artistically oppressive Stalinist regime, and its message was so clearly received that Shostakovich was officially denounced and the work was shelved for 30 years. It wasn’t staged again in the Soviet Union until 3 years after Stalin’s death, in a slightly gentrified form as Katerina Izmailova. Oh, she is as devoid of morality as her original version is, if a bit less gung-ho about it on the surface (and she still kills the same number of people, thus keeping this opera ahead of the many that are tied at 3 corpses per show on this gory operatic body count list).
Anthony Tommasini. Opera: A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Works and Best Recordings. New York. 2004.
Carl R. Proffer. From Karamzin to Bunin: An Anthology of Russian Short Stories. Indiana University Press. 1969.