In Francis Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites, a work loosely based on actual events during the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, 14 Carmelite nuns are sent to the guillotine in a gruesome, solemn procession for having nothing more than devoted their lives to sacrifice and prayer. Their sheltered lives in the service of God was as incomprehensible to the suspicious authorities as theirs was of the brutality inflicted by these persecutors.
Blanche de la Forte is a young woman whose fears lead her into joining the Carmelites to take refuge. She is complex and misunderstood, protected but challenged by her family and the religious sisters. Dialogues of the Carmelites highlights both the differences in perspective and premises for common beliefs which bind community. On the contrary, it also tells of the horrific affects when compartmentalised beliefs heighten caution and fear during times of civil unrest and revolution. It is easy to agree with director Francesca Zambello when she fittingly points out in the program notes, "this opera feels so connected to the darkness of much of international politics today".
In this Washington National Opera company premiere of a work originally produced by Opéra National de Paris, the story moves fluidly with set designer Hildegard Bechtler's stylised multi-spatial construct of arcing walls on a gently revolving stage, gun-metal grey for the convent and ivory for other scenes. Claudie Gastine's costumes add belief to the revolutionary period and Mark McCullough's sharp lighting contrasts and looming shadows give enormous visual sensitivity and fearsomeness.
The staging is beautiful and many scenes evoke a religious painterly style but, as captivating as it is aesthetically and despite ardent individual performances (some loss of vocal projection aside), I was left feeling that the dramaturgy lacked tension and Zambello narrates the story rather than let it bleed. The nuns conform in a what-they-do-best manner we expect of a cliche. They pray, their piety is demonstrative and they scrum with grace but this was a time of immense turmoil when the taking of religious vows was forbidden and church property was confiscated. Around debate within the convent's walls over life, death and God's will, performances which should be pulsating are left lacking as a group.
Musically, Poulenc's score is both lucent and chilling, it smoothes both recitative and aria, it explodes with surprising shifts and it is fused to his own penetrative libretto. Originally produced for La Scala and premiering in 1957 to an Italian libretto, the opera is sung in Poulenc's approved English translation of his French version - in less than a year the opera had premiered in Milan, Paris and San Francisco with great success.
Australian conductor Anthony Walker shaped the score to create the tension of a predator circling its prey. With an attentive eye on the Washington National Opera Orchestra, Walker mustered energetic playing to produce the icy strings, the foreboding percussion and the shadowy woodwind which punctuate the score. Unfortunately, sections of the brass sounded with unappealing distraction.
In a commendable company debut as the young novice Blanche, Layla Claire is vocally expressive of her character's measure of fragility, grace and morbidity while comfortably navigating the ever-fluctuating vocal demands which Poulenc attaches to his principals. Dolora Zajick as the old prioress of the monastery, Madame de Croissy, is compelling as she combines steeliness with compassion before succumbing to a crazed death where God, she sings with vocal anguish, has abandoned her.
Elizabeth Bishop is an unflinchingly secure and a broad, gravelly-voiced Mother Marie as she escapes death but faces the ghastly future without her sisters. Leah Crocetto's company debut as Madame Lidoine impresses with a glint of silver on her dark, solid vocal performance and Ashley Emerson is spritely and vocally bright and clear as the affable but creepily premonitory Sister Constance. Charged with diplomatic self-confidence, other fine performances come from Shawn Mathey and Alan Held as Blanche's father, Chevalier de la Force, and brother, Marquis de la Force respectively.
The opera's usual three acts is presented in two perfectly balanced parts, each concluding with a gloriously sung hymn. The first part appears more internalised and theologically driven concluding with the "Ave Maria". The second part opens out to more externalised, political tensions leading to the grisly finale of the nuns' execution while "Salve Regina" is mournfully heard but interrupted by the sound of each icy slice of the guillotine. Here, squeezed into the fore-stage in a diorama-like manner, the nuns, in undergarments, mount steps to a platform, then disappear behind a wall of light while a crowd look on in silence. Sadly, despite the music's strength, the opera's anticipated chilling end came as a disappointing let down.
Photos courtesy of Scott Suchman