Opera: Francis Poulenc / Dialogues Des Carmélites

The Metropolitan Opera (1987)
Composer & Librettist: Francis Poulenc
Jessye Norman (Madame Lidoine), Maria Ewing (Blanche De La Force), Régine Crespin (Madame De Croissy), Florence Quivar(Mother Marie), Betsy Norden (Sister Constance), Manuel Rosenthal (Conductor)

Retro time at The Met again! This time it’s sistas going wild during France’s reign of terror in Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites.

In prepping for this experience I was wary. Dramatic properties built around religious figures are, for me, box office poison.

 I mean I like nuns and all, I like their clothing and their commitment to service and how (we assume) they give up fucking for some distant imaginary deity. And I even will confess to ocasionally enjoying Call The Midwife, the BBC series about nuns helping non-nuns have healthy babies (though that was mostly because I always got erotically charged imagining mother superior Jenny Agutter secretly wearing that hot outfit from Logan’s Run under her religious vestments). 

But really, is there anything in this world duller than life in a convent? And I have to wonder why Poulenc, a queer composer, would want to spend his energies writing an opera in tribute to those who until recently wanted to burn his peeps at the stake? What is it with these French Catholics?

Anyway, I swept aside my resistance to burn a Sunday afternoon with this saga of innocents who get swept aside in events they couldn’t fight in the wrong place at the wrong time of history.

Overture clocked in at 1:25 – Poulenc with his usual economy. As the male leads chime in I am surprised to find it’s sung in English. Poulenc desired that this opera should be translated into the language of the local where presented. What a good sport! I say you can’t have too much of that spirit of adaptability in opera.

As the initial drawing room scene drew to a close the set design was revealed. It looked like something scavenged from a mid-20th century office building demolition. I get that the stage was designed to be of reductive design and the white tile array is laid out to play upon the shadows in such a way as to describe a cross, but it still looked like someone borrowed a drop ceiling from a suburban office park and reassembled it as polyvinyl flooring. The set was fleshed out with skeletal steel towers to give a bit of depth and a large abstract steel crucifix that hung above the stage in the rear glowering over the action.

Director John Dexter plots all the action around this minimalist unit set concept that was developed for the production of Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète a decade earlier. When asked by a patron who had attended that opera asked Dexter if he was intending to mount a similar set design for this production of Dialogues des Carmélites, he quipped: “Madame, the production of Carmélites will make Bert Brecht look like a Rennaissance voluptuary.”

Sitting for for three hours watching a production under this type of austerity program is slow going. But Poulenc’s fine music is the great redeemer. Everything on par with the usual convoluted vocal lines of opera, but with Poulenc I can bear that mightlily too. Rhythmic flair abounds. The mother superior’s funeral service in latin is affecting, with interesting harmonic structure under spare melodies from two of the mourning nuns. The duet “Oh do not leave me so, with a goodbye said in anger” sung between Blanche (played by holy terror diva Maria Ewing) and her former lover, the Chevalier (David Kuebler) with the two singers separated by the monastery gate is both bittersweet and uplifting.

Fanfares for when the sister servant or whoever she is enters the convent are lovely. The group singing in Act II’s Ave Maria is a fine canticle-within-an-opera as the cast strikes an elegant pose — tres elegante, parce que j’adore voir tous ces pingouins lined up on opposite sides of the crucifix/stage thing holding candles.

Aggressively tonal for 1956, Grande Francis is simply a stud to have stood up to the serial-minded, atonally-inclined intelligentia of the day to birth this fine opera that is one of the rare modern works to have always been in repertory. Lush, beautiful music, a fine libretto, and great gravitas of Les Carmélites effectively counterbalance its austere colorless sets and the melancholy of doomed members of the superfluity dispensing spiritual sustenance to each other before they are made to file away to the guillotine.