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Nun Spared

Thursday evening I was told of a production of Dialogues des Carmélites, Poulenc's most dramatic and successful of his three operas. While I had the dubious pleasure to watch La Bohème on Friday, instead of enjoying Poulenc, I had another chance on Sunday, which I fortunately took. On such short notice, I didn't delve into the opera at home but merely tickled my Poulenc fancy with some of his concerti, songs, and music for solo piano, all of which is fresh and delightful, harmless sometimes, but never banal. The piano, organ, or harpsichord concertos, in particular, are a must-have for any music lover.

Francis Poulenc
When I arrived at Lisner Auditorium with minutes to spare, a bit of a ticket-managing disaster awaited me. Faced with many latecomers who couldn't find their tickets at will-call, the charming and helpful staff ran about like chickens with their heads cut off. (Premonitions of what was to come?) I stood, half-forgotten, half-lost next to the commotion until Opera International’s Producer-Director Muriel Hom literally and kindly took me by my hand and guided me past the imposing doorman to a seat of my liking.

I was hardly seated when the short prelude to The Dialogues began, and I had no chance to worry too much about the opera's presentation in English, rather than its original French. Setting the tone for Poulenc's sweet, melodic, but undeniably modern, sometimes neoclassical music, Edward Roberts conducted his 37-piece band with immediately audible aplomb towards the charm and wit that can be expected from Poulenc's work. The sound of the orchestra that spilled out of the small pit—harp, timpani, percussion, and a few brass elements stuck out or seated outside of it—was pleasant and if not terribly refined, adequate in the best sense.

The revealed set (from the Calgary Opera Association) is sparse and old fashioned-traditional, the costumes "realistic," say, even more old-fashioned and rather quaint. The character of the drama of The Dialogues, based on a real story and retold by Poulenc based on the German novella Die letzte am Schaffott (The Last One on the Scaffold) by Gertrud von le Fort and a film script by George Bernanos, is self-contained and can handle this sort of stage direction like a good play can.

The singing, so much could be said from scene 1 alone, was fairly impressive. Erich Parce's baritone was strong and supple but never forced. The costume he donned as Marquis de la Force befit his archaic air perfectly, and his acting made it work. While good things can be said about Jingma Fan's singing (he was the Marquis's son, Blanche's brother), his acting was not of the same natural and self-assured, mature quality. His movements and postures seemed more contrived, and he did not manage to turn his costume into a natural, rather than silly, part of his character. Yi-Cherng Lin's short appearance in the role of the lackey Thierry, however, made clear just how much worse acting could be, still. Age seems to have most to do with this all-too-rare ability among opera singers, which leads me to believe that acting is not nearly emphasized enough (or well enough) in the training of the new generation of opera singers. Jessica Swink as Blanche, looking good despite her costume (which was just a little too much with pink hat and ribbons), featured a clear and amiably fragile tone that became powerful in higher notes, amid some perhaps unnecessary vibrato.

The prelude to Scene 2 meanwhile shows Poulenc's play with brass and woodwinds in give and take, while puckishly plucked strings and harp play with each other in the background. Then a more somber, back-and-forth waving tone enters as we see the convent with the Prioress, Madame de Croissy (superbly sung by Kyle Engler). The minimal set—chair, a wooden panel of separation (confession booth-like), the two characters of the Prioress and Blanche well lit—started to shed its old- fashioned skin a bit for minimal realism. The costume for Blanche was still old-fashioned but less silly, while a nun's costume has of course a timelessly sleek appeal. Gently ends this scene, over the flute's last tone as the characters move off stage.

The interlude between Scenes 2 and 3 is another charming work with subtle brass over strings, only that this time the responsible section of the orchestra, seemingly assembled for the purpose of this performance, had some audible difficulties with the execution.

That the performance was in English was far less of an obstacle for me than I had thought it might be. One of the reasons is probably my relative ignorance of French, in which I would not have understood much. Instead, the language was an integral part in keeping the audience firmly within the dramatic element of the opera. It also gave the opera an amusing Brittenish flavor with its now less mellifluous, more stilted quality. The choice of language was in the end a valuable tradeoff between the skills of the participants (for many of whom French would have been more of a challenge), the involvement of the audience, and the slight loss of melodic quality with which the original language imbues Poulenc's music. Seeing Mozart's Trollflöjten, courtesy of Ingmar Bergman, is at any rate a more disconcerting experience.

A lovely dialogue between the novices in the convent, Sister Blanche and Sister Constance, dominates Scene 3, dominated by a large bench and table and all the ingredients for a Dutch still life on it. And, of course, those very tastefully clad nuns. The attractive soprano Jane-Anne Tucker (Constance) does not have the strongest, but an appropriate and wonderfully agile voice, just about not too shrill and aptly fidgety. She sang impressively all night, more so even considering that she is an amateur singer (in the best sense), busy with two young children.

Scene 4 could have done without the gothic gate that stood rather unmotivated in the back. The bed, spartan nightstand, and two chairs seemed enough. What followed was Sister Superior (Madame de Crossy) dying stylishly over the course of the next 15 minutes, with the highest artistic merit. To see the audience prematurely robbed of the strong performance of Kyle Engler (an equally fine singer and actress) was a shame. Mother Marie of the Incarnation was more than capable support with her plain face suiting the role visibly very well. Her singing, on the lighter side, was backed up with such fine acting that her performance, too, was pure enjoyment. The cell phone ringing during the conversation between Mother superior (still alive then) and Blanche was an unfortunate distraction.

The story sags a bit during the later parts of Act I, with Mother Superior's vision of a ravaged, abandoned convent being a dramatic interruption. The scene in which she, dead now, is carried off, interrupted by the rings of the unmercifully regular bell from the orchestra pit (and a quickly quenched cell phone), was theatrical and moving; all done behind the semitransparent curtain that opened again for Scene 5. The arch remained in the chapel scene and made more sense behind the semicircle of large candles placed around the Mother Superior's body. Scene 6, in front of the curtain, was moving and witty at once with its contemplations of death by Sister Constance.

Jessica Swink (now Stecklein)
In Scene 7 the new Mother Superior, Hai-bo Bai, showed that her predecessor had far and away the superior diction. Swallowed syllables and odd intonations made her English near incomprehensible, Sutherland-style, without the trills, though. Her voice certainly was piercing and clean enough to fill her role in most other aspects, though piano parts sometimes slipped into the inaudible under the orchestral accompaniment... to no discernable fault on conductor Robert's part, however. The church window projections on the back curtain and the larger than life faux-naïve Jesus on the cross were again perfectly adequate stage sets.

After the introduction before the curtain, Scene 1 was the same as Scene 2 of Act I was. The Chevalier de la Force, Jingma Fan, now seemed a little restricted and nasal in higher vocal altitudes. The continuing interludes kept reminding me of the sea interludes in Peter Grimes (though far shorter and slighter) or even the knee plays from Einstein on the Beach. The Chaplain of the Convent, Patrick Toomey, was fine but on the wobbly side; the new Mother Superior, Madame Lidoine, remained incomprehensible while Jessica Swink's Sister Blanche got better and better. Paul McIlvaine, 1st Commissioner, was convincing in manner and, despite his role, sympathetic. Mother Marie's voice was still small but strong, and if she lacked bombast she more than made up for it with her ability to portray fragile, stoic strength. The short second act ends with the vow of martyrdom, setting the stage for one of the most hair-raising operatic finales.

Act III opens as the nuns are forced to leave the convent in plain clothes (looking cluttered and so much less appealing than in a Carmelite's uniform). Scene 2, same as Act I, Scene 1, takes place at the library of the Marquis de la Force, alas torn up and savaged. Blanche who had—unbeknownst to me but according to the synopsis—run away after the taking of the vow is asked by Mother Marie to join the convent again. Blanche, experiencing the upheavals of the French Revolution all too vividly (her father had met the device prescribed by Dr. Guillotin in 1789 as the most humane form of capital punishment; she also got slapped by her former servants!), declines.

available at Amazon
F.Poulenc, Dialogues des Carmélites,
P.Dervaux / D.Duval, R.Crespin et al.

Scene 3 has the nuns in prison after a lovely, wailing oboe melody in the interlude. Blanche is still AWOL while the order is condemned to death for unlawful assemblage. Mother Superior mumbled; Mother Marie, absent, wished to join her sisters in their hour of agony and death. Scene 5 finally is the famous, chilling, and so very effective scene in which, one by one, singing their Salve Regina, the nuns, dressed in white (which is historically correct) are led to the scaffold off stage, with the grating swooosh-clunk of the falling blade decimating the choir one by one. The guillotine rhythmically and greedily claims one singing nun after another, accompanied by the chilling sound effect that had some audience members gasp silently. Sister Constance is the last left, hesitates, sees Blanche, and meets, singing still, her fate. After Constance's song is cut short, Blanche continues up the plank to meet the same fate in unquestioning devotion to her vow of martyrdom.

In his review in the Washington Post, Tim Page was right to claim that this naïve portrayal of religious fanaticism, no matter how nobly inspired, and the religious pervasiveness over the republican and enlightenment ideas that had been a kernel of the revolution can be difficult to take at the same value than, say, before September 11, 2001. That I did not think of this connection while following the opera probably speaks to the performance's success in grabbing my attention. I was, especially after the Puccini horror at Wolf Trap, just delighted by this production, one of the most charming opera performances that I have seen in Washington—and that with a shoestring budget and a troupe that seemed rather randomly thrown together. The applause, partisan perhaps, spotty, generous but short, was more than deserved. This 10-year-old foundation, Opera International, with their now 10th production in Washington pulled a feat off that I would not have believed possible. If they continue in this fashion, especially if they delve into a bit more out of the way repertoire rather than doing the hackneyed "classics" like they did in the past, they will be an attraction to opera neophytes and veterans alike, a distinction very few companies have.

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