Kamilló Lendvay's 1978 opera La Putain respectueuse is being included on the Opera's programme for the first time, as is a work by the younger composer Gábor Péter Mezei: Opposite the Catafalque. Both works focus on the destinies of women: the first in a treatment of a classic Sartre play, the other a contemporary chamber piece. The theme, however, is similar: at a universal level, both press the question of whether it is possible to attain genuine happiness and prosperity purchased at the price of the sacrifice of others.
Audience members should be advised that strobe lighting effects are used in the course of the performance Opposite the Catafalque.
Opposite the Catafalque
Two young women, sisters Rita and Dóra, arrive home tired from their father's funeral. He had been a respected businessman, and the government minister himself had stood beside the catafalque and read aloud the letter from the president. Dóra had sobbed through the entire ceremony. The two girls revisit the past: all of the Christmases and birthdays they had shared. Their father raised them alone, but still gave them a beautiful childhood. Although the girls were strongly attached to him, there was still something strange and mysterious in their relationship. Dora is convinced that their father loved Rita much more than he did her, that Rita was his favourite. Rita, too, was aware of this, but always tried to encourage their father to love her sister as much as he did her. But Dóra reminded their father of their mother, and this may have been why he always rejected the girl's attempts to get close to him, while being left alone with her made him downright uncomfortable.
At the funeral, Dóra had been unable to think of a single pleasant personal memory of their father, which made her weep even more bitterly. Meanwhile, Rita noticed a man standing directly opposite the catafalque, far from the crowd. He had filled her with ardour, and from then on she could think of nothing else for the remainder of the service. The man never took his eye off her for a second, but then turned away shyly when Rita caught him staring at her.
As the evening progresses, Rita works Dóra into a state of self-flagellation and self-reproach, which eventually evolves into a resolution: to take her own life.
Rita and the man standing opposite the catafalque arrive from Dóra's funeral, which only a few people attended. Rita had been hoping that the Man would be there again, even though she had no idea where he knew her sister from. It emerges that the Man had visited them frequently at one point as their father's business partner. Rita has no memory of him at all from the past, just like she remembers none of her father's other business associates. The Man remembers Rita always clinging to her father's neck. The Man had been deeply annoyed that Rita didn't even notice him or pay him any heed.
The Man is very sorry about what happened with Dóra. He remembers her as being full of laughter, polite, kind and attentive. Rita is also sorry about what happened: she could have gone after Dóra, and perhaps prevented the suicide. However, she makes it evident that her act was somewhat intentional, that she had driven her sister toward suicide because she wanted to see the Man again, and this was the only way to do so: she had hoped that he would be at this funeral too.
It also turns out that shortly before the girls' father died, the Man had concluded a business deal with their father. The father had signed a contract that was unfavourable for him and then gone on to transfer a sum of money to the Man's bank account that was so great, it ended up bankrupting him. All of this happened in this way so that Rita would finally take notice of the Man. Two people had to die in order for them to find each other at last.
La putain respectueuse
Hoping for a more tranquil life, Lizzie MacKay has decided to move to a small town in the American South. On the rail journey to her new home, however, she inadvertently gets mixed up – and ending up as the star witness – in a terrible conflict that ends in tragedy: an argument on the train between white men and black men results in one of the whites shooting one of the blacks, whose companion escapes. The murderer is Thomas, one of the senator's sons. From this point on, Lizzie's life becomes a living hell.
The next morning, the black man who fled from the train desperately seeks out the girl at her flat. Lizzie angrily tries to send him away, but the innocent man has nobody else he can rely on other than her: she is the only one who might take his side. He asks Lizzie to go to the judge and tell him the truth. The girl, however, has had problems with the law in the past and won't have any of this: a streetwalker cannot be a champion of justice. But she promises that if she is called as a witness, she'll truthfully testify that the Negro is innocent.
Emerging from Lizzie's bathroom is Fred: even after spending the night with her, he's reluctant to reveal his name to her and hypocritically refuses to hear anything about what happened between them the previous night. As Fred is her first guest in the new town, Lizzie sentimentally and generously offers to waive her fee, but Fred nevertheless places ten dollars on the table. Shocked at the realisation of how little a night with her is worth to him, she angrily rejects the humiliatingly meagre sum, retorting in her indignation that any mother who neglected to teach her son to respect women must herself be a big whore. The man then reveals that he is a son of the senator, and the only reason he spent the night there was because he was the brother of the white man accused of the murder on the train. He attempts to convince Lizzie to go to the judge and attest that the black men were trying to rape her, and when she called out for help, the four white men came to her rescue. One of the black men pulled a knife, meaning that Thomas shot him in self-defence.
Lizzie protests: this is a favour she won't do. She's only willing to tell the truth. Scornfully, Fred retorts that nobody is going to believe a ten-dollar streetwalker. When the police arrive, Fred tries to blackmail Lizzie, telling her that prostitution is a punishable offence here too. On the other hand, there's 500 dollars in it for her if she shields Thomas.
The police take the girl to Senator Clark's estate, where they have no luck trying to make her see reason. Lizzie remains stubbornly silent and, despite all their threats, refuses to sign the false testimony. Fred shows her a photograph of Thomas to show her what a marvellous and estimable white man she would be sacrificing for the sake of a wretched Negro. He forces the girl to kneel down in front of the photo. Senator Clark enters and, immediately apprehending the situation, helps the girl to her feet. He also dismisses the two policemen: he will be using other means to convince her. He says that he believes the girl's account stating that the Negro had done her no harm, but it's a matter of the good of the entire nation: if the citizens have to choose either a no-good ungrateful Negro or the murderer Thomas as the one to sacrifice, then they have to take the side of the latter, since he is not only better than him, he is also a highly useful member of society. Mesmerised by his eloquence, the girl signs the testimony. As Senator Clark and Fred exit the room, she comes to her senses, but her frantic plea to rip up the paper falls on deaf ears.
That night, the Negro again comes to Lizzie seeking refuge from his persecutors. Despondently, the girl tells him that he has come to late: she has been manipulated into stating that the Negro assaulted her, and now the entire town is looking for him. Lizzie expects the Negro to attack her, but a strange empathy develops between them instead. When the police come by, Lizzie hides the man in her bathroom. Later on, she takes a pistol from her bag and aims it at the entrance. Fred staggers in the door: his clothes are torn and bloody from the lynching that had just taken place. The girl has him mesmerised, making him weak and vulnerable against her: he can think of nothing but her. Suddenly he notices that there is someone else in the flat and goes to check the bathroom. The black man manages to race out of the flat, and Fred gives chase. Lizzie drops the pistol onto the table: she doesn't even know how to use it. Presently, Fred returns. Enraptured, he tells the girl that he's going to take her to a house with a garden, where she'll be the mistress, and every night he'll come visit her.
Opera in two acts, without an intermission, in Hungarian, with Hungarian surtitles