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Second Opinion: 'Dialogues of the Carmelites'

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Kennedy Center.

Dialogues of the Carmelites, Washington National Opera, 2015 (photo by Scott Suchman)

On the evening of Monday, February 23, I attended the second performance of Washington National Opera's production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites at the Kennedy Center. This is an opera I have long loved, but never seen on stage. My expectations were high, and they were largely met. (See Charles's review of the production's opening night.)

First of all, one must explain the challenge of this somewhat difficult work. Most of the action is interior in a spiritual sense. It is very difficult to dramatize an inner struggle of the soul, but this is what Poulenc attempted and succeeded at portraying.

It’s not as if the context of the story lacks drama. It is all the more gripping because it is based upon the true history of the French Revolution. In 1794, the revolutionary prayer police caught a group of Carmelite nuns from Compiègne still secretly practicing their vows. They had been expelled from their convent two years earlier. Declared enemies of the state, the sisters were marched to the scaffold and guillotined on July 17, 1794. Upon this episode, George Bernanos, the famous French novelist, based his only screenplay. After his death, Bernanos’s literary executor fashioned it into a successful play. Poulenc took a version of the text as the libretto for his opera.

Bernanos and Poulenc avoid the melodrama and typical verismo hysterics that normally would be associated with an opera on a subject such as this. This translates into a relatively conservative, though rich operatic style that is part recitative and part lyrical. The opera is set without arias or “big numbers.” Poulenc does not deploy his full orchestral resources, familiar to those who know the Stabat Mater or the Gloria, until the very end, at the scaffold scene, when he does so to glorious effect. At whatever volume, the music is charged with the same level of energy as its spiritual subject.

Bernanos and Poulenc seek neither to sensationalize nor sentimentalize the events of the Revolution. Those events are depicted only insofar as they impinge on the lives of the nuns and serve only as background to their interior spiritual drama, which is the real subject of the opera. One must praise the direction of Francesca Zambello for staying true to their intentions. The stage direction remained focused and never distracted from the inner action. In fact, it enhanced it. I was particularly impressed at how restrained Zambello kept the crowd scenes, when a more indulgent director would have succumbed to the opportunity for raucous spectacle.

The opera aims at a high level of spiritual realism and achieves it with profound psychological and spiritual complexity. Fear, faith, death, and providence are the subjects of this opera. The story revolves around Blanche de la Force, who, out of her fears of both life and death, enters the convent with an idealized notion of the joys of detachment. The prioress warns her: “What does it avail a nun to be detached from everything if she is not also set free from herself — that is to say, from her own detachment?” Sister Blanche soon witnesses the agonizing death of the prioress, who exclaims: “God has become a shadow.... I have been thinking of death each day of my life, and now it does not help me at all.” Moments before death, she foresees the desecration of the chapel and cries out, “God has abandoned us!” The shocked Sister Marie, who attends her, keeps the other sisters out of range so they will not be scandalized.

The prioress’s difficult death disturbs the community, except for young Sister Constance, who suggests, somewhat blithely, “At 59, is it not high time to die?” Yet it is also Sister Constance who grasps how providential the difficult death may be. She proposes to the puzzled Blanche that the troubled death of the prioress belonged to someone else: “One would say that in giving her this kind of death, our good Lord had made an error; as in a cloakroom they give you one coat for another.” She suggests that, because of this, someone who least expects it will be surprised by how easy death is. Constance further upsets Blanche by telling her that they will die young together. Blanche spends the rest of the opera resisting this notion. When her own death approaches in the last act, after the nuns have taken the vow of martyrdom, Blanche flees in terror. Only at the last moment, when the guillotine has begun to fall, does Blanche reappear “incredibly calm” to take her place by her sisters. They die singing the Salve Regina. Blanche joyfully sings the four last verses from the Veni Creator Spiritus as she submits to the blade.

One could easily argue that Blanche’s last-minute arrival at the scaffold, composed and ready to die, is, dramaturgically speaking, a deus ex machina. How is it that she suddenly receives the grace for her peaceful, though violent, death? It is not a development we observe. It simply happens. Yet, in this case, the deus ex machina adds to, rather than detracts from, the drama of the work because it operates on the same plane of grace that is the premise of the whole work. The prioress’s deathbed cry that God had abandoned her echoed Christ’s cry from the cross. Yet, mysteriously, Christ’s cry was salvific. What of the prioress’s ugly death? Did it share in that salvific work? How? The working out of this mystery and the spiritual tensions within it drive the opera. Providentially, the prioress’s agonizing death in a peaceful setting makes possible Blanche’s peaceful death in an agonized setting.

From this brief summary, one can easily see that the key roles are those of Madame de Croissy, the Old Prioress, and Blanche de la Force. American mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, who actually sings the Divine Office with the Carmelite Sisters of Reno when she is at home, did an excellent job vocally and dramatically as the prioress. Her agonizing death scene was every bit as disturbing and repugnant as it needed to be to give force to the rest of the opera. As Blanche, Canadian soprano Layla Claire had exactly the right kind of fragility and vulnerability to make Blanche’s struggle real, with a warm and tender voice suited to the part. American soprano Ashley Emerson was suitably impish and impulsive as Sister Constance, and played the perfect foil to Blanche. Leah Crocetto as Madame Lidoine and Elizabeth Bishop as Mother Marie were both convincing. The two main male roles were sung with distinction by American bass-baritone Alan Held as the Marquis de la Force, Blanche’s father, and tenor Shawn Mathey as the Chevalier de la Force, Blanche’s brother.

Mr. Mathey was also the only singer who sang with sufficient diction that his words could be understood without looking at the supertitles. I am not sure that the other singers are entirely at fault in this matter. Poulenc wrote the opera to a French libretto, and the English translation does not scan musically as well as the French. My bet would be that there is at least a slight expansion factor – that the English libretto has more words in it than the French – thus requiring the singers to get through the words faster. In any case, Mr. Mathey was crystal-clear. Overall, I would have preferred to hear the opera in French, though that would have been against the wishes of Poulenc, who thought audiences should be able to hear it in their own language.

The large curved-wall sets were economical and I thought, at first, crude. But as things proceeded, I saw how much set designer Hildegard Bechtler was able to get out of a little. For instance, in the nuns’ chapel against a somewhat bland curved wall, what looks like a wooden bas-relief of Virgin and Child, with two pairs of candles below it, is lowered. That was just enough to break the austerity of the setting and communicate the purpose of the space. The only other visual reference I have for this opera is from a DVD of the Netherlands Opera Amsterdam production at La Scala, under Riccardo Muti. In it, the huge dark space of the stage was certainly menacing, but it was allowed to swallow the intimate drama. The WNO production, sets, and staging avoided this potential pitfall, and attention remained where it needed to be. I was also very grateful for the traditional costumes, so capably rendered by Claudie Gastine. One’s attention was never diverted by trying to figure out what the anachronisms were supposed to mean, because there weren’t any.

The Washington National Opera Orchestra, under Canadian conductor Antony Walker, gave a spirited performance, but was too often out of balance with the singers, who were more than occasionally swamped. This will, no doubt, be ironed out in future performances.

The otherwise excellent notes in the Playbill program failed to mention that the 16 good sisters of Compiègne were beatified by Pope Pius X in 1907.

This production continues through March 10. One ought not to miss this opportunity to see a production so close to the intentions of its composer and librettist.

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