The MET Opera House/ Wednesday January 18th, 2023.
Welcome back friends!
Welcome back, this week once again, to the fabulous world of opera, and to one of the most austere, tragic, philosophical, harrowing, and yet riveting and exhilarating, 20th century operas ever written, and a favorite of audiences and music critics, because of the bewildering beautiful musical motifs, relative to the characters personalities (whether novice nuns, prioresses, or family members of the heroine): at times optimistic, and often grounded, and at times fearful, or finally, sometimes as well, spiritually fervent (including a few hauntingly stunning religious hymns).
Wow! and yay!
Welcome to 1957 “Dialogues des Carmélites “, written by one of my favorite French composers, an extremely talented artist, illustrious for his wide variety of works in many genres including piano, chamber music, songs, ballets, religious music (his “Litanies à la vierge noire” are incredibly beautiful as well), and 3 operas (“Dialogues des Carmélites” being his most famous opera).
So, welcome to wonderfully gifted musically, Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), also the librettist on this opera, which allowed him also to include his own views on faith, and the doubts that had plagued him, a libretto also based on a true story, and on an un-produced screenplay by illustrious political and religious French playwright, Georges Bernanos (1888-1948).
What is the plot about?
Set between 1789 and 1794, during the French revolution, in Compiègne in North Eastern France, and in Paris’ illustrious prison (La Conciergerie), at a time in France when religious institutions were becoming outlawed, it is about a group of Carmelite nuns (including the heroine, Blanche de la Force, a young woman, whose nervous constitution, wild imagination, and deep faith, leads her to decide to become a Carmelite nun at the beginning of the opera), who all unanimously, will choose to take a vow of martyrdom, which will lead all of them, to get first, arrested, and ultimately, guillotined (and which in real life, brought down the fall of Robespierre and his Reign of Terror in 1794, a few days after their deaths).
Gasp and sigh.
In Act 1, as the French Revolution is beginning to shake the country, we discover the Marquis de la Force and his son the Chevalier, at home in the countryside, in their library, worried about Blanche, the Chevalier’s sister, as her carriage has been held up by a mob on her way home. As Blanche arrives, we can tell she has a fearful and nervous constitution, unrelated to these revolutionary events, even if she is an aristocrat (which makes it dangerous for her during these revolutionary times), but related more to her internal psychological make up: spiritually inclined, rich, complex, and filled with doubt and fear about the outside world, which leads her quickly, to tell her father she has decided to become a nun.
Blanche quickly meets up in the Carmelite convent in Compiègne, with the authoritative, elderly and apparently ill Prioress, Madame de Croissy, who explains clearly to Blanche, that a Carmelite convent is house of prayer and not a refuge, and despite her firm and brusque manner, seems touched by Blanche’s resolve to embrace wholeheartedly the Carmelites’ devoted praying life.
We then witness Blanche sharing the convent’s chores, and the type of “conversations/dialogues” she has with other fellow nuns, in particular with a very young, joyful, enthusiastic, easy going nun, Constance, with whom she discusses both very light hearted everyday topics (the “comic relief” few welcomed moments of the opera), and very deep conversations about faith, fear of death, visions of the future (Constance is certain they will both die young and together), which of course, shocks Blanche.
Meanwhile, in the infirmary, Madame de Croissy, the prioress, is slowly dying. She calls for Blanche, blesses her, and as Blanche is the youngest member of the order, consigns her to the care of another experienced nun, Mother Marie. And incredibly shockingly for (the audience), and for a prioress, Madame de Croissy’s long, painful, and agonizing ordeal, shakes to the core, her (the prioress’) until then, unwavering faith, as she (the prioress) descends slowly, into an alarming dementia, filled with anger, rage, terror and spite. And eventually dies.
Incredibly sad and moving of course.
In Act 2, Constance and Blanche both keep vigil by the prioress’ bier. Blanche is overcome by fear, and seems truly distraught by Madame de Croissy’s harrowing death, and is about to run off, when Mother Marie appears, and talks to Blanche to calm her.
Madame Lidoine has been appointed the new prioress, she addresses the convent counseling fortitude, patience and humility, in the face of the outside world’s uncertainty, restlessness, and volatility.
Blanche’s brother, the Chevalier de la Force, stops then by the convent, and urges Blanche to leave it immediately, as the convent is no longer a safe place, and return to their father’s home, but Blanche replies that her duty is to her sisters.
In the sacristy, the chaplain forbidden to perform his duties, celebrates his last mass, and Mother Marie wonders if self sacrifice will be their destiny.
The nuns decide to all pray together.
Let’s now listen to this beautiful and meditative short and final prayer, and below, sang a few years ago, in the same production’s dress rehearsal, by Cargill, as Mother Marie, and Pieczonka, as Madame Lidoine, leading all the Carmelites into this wonderfully introspective, fervent, and short “Ave Maria” at the end of Act 2:
Enjoy, and listen to the gorgeous music, arias, and stunning chorus.
In Act 3, in the devastated chapel, Mother Marie suggests, in Madame Lidoine’s absence, that they all take a vow of martyrdom by unanimous decision.
Blanche looks panicked. A secret ballot reveals one dissenter.
The vow ultimately, will proceed, when the young and joyful nun Constance, originally the only nun against the martyrdom, reverses her vote.
Blanche, afraid to live or die, runs away, and we find out she is working as a servant in the ransacked mansion of her father, who himself has been sent to the guillotine. Mother Marie finds Blanche at her home, and asks her return to the sisters.
The nuns have been arrested, stripped of their nun robes /”habits”, and at the Conciergerie prison, Madame Lidoine joins the sisters in their vow of martyrdom. Constance says she has dreamed of Blanche’s return.
A jailer enters and reads the death sentence. A crowd has gathered Place de la Révolution. The Carmelites (including Blanche who has returned to join her Carmelite sisters), all walk with courage and and dignity, one by one, towards the guillotine, led by Madame Lidoine, while singing a hauntingly beautiful “Salve Regina” hymn.
Just awful to watch, and incredibly moving.
What to say about the production itself?
That 1977 John Dexter’s imposing and austere production, with beautiful, streamlined, and sober sets by David Reppa, and stunning costumes by Jane Greenwood, was simply awesome, and timeless, and captured well the different lifestyles found in the outside world (whether the aristocratic society or the Parisian streets), and in a convent: loved in particular, the contrast between the colorful and (fairly) comfortable aristocratic mansion of the Marquis de la Force (love the simili-looking 18th century Fragonard painting, symbolizing both outside life, and happy human love, “The Crowning of Love”), and regarding the convent, I loved the black and white colors, the “cross like” simple white floors, the lighting (to convey additional ideas of crosses), and the simple sets, to convey the interior, protected, fervent, and yet almost imprisoned, and out of reach to the outside world, convent “sphere”, which thus, allows for sheltered, safe, peaceful, simple and fraternal community life, devoted to prayer.
And I loved also that the deaths by guillotine, of the Carmelite nuns, was staged with such dignity and restraint, with no visual of the actual deaths, only sound to convey each mounting and inexorable deaths. So powerful, sad, and respectful, to depict the Carmelites’ martyrdom that way.
What to say of the conductor and performers?
That all of them, including the chorus, were, as was the orchestra, wonderfully conducted, with great beauty and sensitivity, under Bertrand de Billy’s masterful baton.
And I was particularly pleased by the great French pronunciation of most of the singers, (which is not always the case at the opera), and which for Francophile, or for some French born audience members, truly enhances the opera listening pleasure.
And three singers, particularly stood out for me:
First, the American and highly expressive soprano, Ailyn Pérez, was truly exceptional as the young Blanche de la Force, as a young woman and a nun, such fear and yet determination in her singing: extremely convincing in his portrayal of this shy, yet fervent, imaginative, and spiritually inclined young woman, who despite her doubts and strong and recurrent fears, will ultimately join her (nun) sisters in their martyrdom.
Second, in the entertaining role of the other young nun, the light hearted, happy, joyful, easygoing, Constance, French soprano, Sabine Devieilhe was wonderful, fun, spunky, and endearing, and what beautiful color in her voice!
Third, intense, outstanding and incredibly charismatic, English mezzo-soprano, Alice Coote, was a terrific Madame de Croissy, the first prioress of the Carmelite convent, what passion, authority, and eventually madness, to express both her faith, and the huge doubts that assail her as she dies.
So, to sum up my feelings, about Poulenc’s tragic, solemn, spiritual, filled with doubt, heart wrenching “Dialogues des Carmélites “, filled with incredible political and spiritual drama, admired last Wednesday, at the MET Opera, in great company: what a heart breaking (true) story, set to awesomely beautiful musical motifs, and how moving is Pérez, as the fearful yet spiritually inclined, Blanche de la Force, what a charming and light hearted “Constance”, Devieilhe embodies as well, and what an imposing and finally mad prioress, Coote portrays, and finally, what a poetic, austere, imposing, timeless Dexter production, enhancing beautifully, the inner and outer lives of Blanche at her home, in the convent, and finally, on the streets of Paris, where the martyrdom of these Carmelites is staged with great restraint and dignity, as Blanche, along with all her Carmelite sisters, all walk alone, and one by one, solemnly and with courage, to their harrowing (guillotine) deaths.
And not to be missed!
Until next time friends!
Eternal butterflies 😊