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Finally, 'Dialogues of the Carmelites' at WNO

Dolora Zajick (Madame de Croissy), Layla Claire (Blanche de la Force), and cast in Dialogues of the Carmelites,
Washington National Opera, 2015 (photo by Scott Suchman)

Almost ten years ago, I made a wish that Washington National Opera would get around to staging Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites. This powerful opera is based on the true story of the Sixteen Blessed Martyrs of Compiègne, a convent of Carmelite nuns who died at the guillotine after the French revolutionaries disbanded their community. The work has been performed in Washington before, by Opera International in 2004 and by Catholic University's Summer Opera before that, but not with the sort of cast marshaled by Washington National Opera, heard on Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick was a powerhouse Madame de Croissy, the ailing prioress of the community who takes in the naive, somewhat disturbed Blanche de la Force as a novice. Likewise, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop and soprano Leah Crocetto, the latter in a striking company debut, were equally powerful as Mother Marie of the Incarnation and Madame Lidoine, respectively, the nuns who lead the community after the death of Madame de Croissy. Soprano Ashley Emerson, heard last season as a spirited Papagena, was a tiny dynamo of energy, both physical and vocal, as the flighty Sister Constance. In such company, Canadian soprano Layla Claire, though slender and pretty as the nobleman's daughter turned nun, seemed vocally outclassed as Blanche de la Force. Her voice sort of dissipated at times, and sometimes intonation suffered, possibly related to a slight fragility of tone and fluttering vibrato.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, “Carmelites” is too cool, in every sense, in WNO debut (Washington Post, February 23)

Susan Dornady Eisenberg, Dolora Zajick Chats About Her Debut This Week in Dialogues of the Carmelites at Washington National Opera (Huffington Post, February 20)
The supporting cast was generally fine, too, especially the ardent Chevalier de la Force of tenor Shawn Mathey, admired previously in San Francisco and here in Washington, and the curmudgeonly Marquis de la Force of Alan Held. Antony Walker, the talented director of Washington Concert Opera, was a sure presence at the podium, lining up all the musicians of the large orchestra (the performance uses the full version of the score), some splats in the horns aside, and the unusually large cast. Another snow storm kept about one-fourth of the chorus members marooned at home, but the sound of the choral and ensemble numbers, some of the most musically satisfying in the opera, did not suffer too badly. WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello generously asked those in the limited audience to come down and fill in the seats toward the front if they wanted to do so, and many did.

Zambello's staging of the opera, originally mounted by the Opéra National de Paris, was austere but effective. After the absurd treatment of the Franciscans in Zambello's production of La forza del destino, I was prepared for the worst in her handling of this story about Carmelite nuns, worry that was entirely misplaced. The costumes were traditional, down to the brown, black, and white habits (designed by Claudie Gastine), and the sets designed by Hildegard Bechtler were looming cast iron curved walls, as menacing and bare as a Richard Serra sculpture. It is true that the stylized approach of the production -- the scaffold makes it look like the nuns are going into a sort of tanning booth -- weakens the opera's power in places, which is hard to justify. While the English translation by Joseph Machlis, approved by the composer, is generally effective, one wished that the supertitles included more than just the first few words of the Latin texts sung, words that were central to the lives of these nuns and, indeed, with resonance for the opera's action.

This production runs through March 10, in the Kennedy Center Opera House.


jfl said...

FYI: Our review from back when, here: Nun Spared

Charles T. Downey said...

Thank you -- I thought I remembered you had reviewed that but then could not find it.