WNO’s moving new production of “Dialogues of the Carmelites”

Devout yet sensual, this production of Poulenc’s unusually cerebral and faith-driven opera gets a generally memorable performance that’s well-worth seeing.

Dialogues of the Carmelites.
Washington National Opera Production of Francis Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites." Final Scene. (Credit: Scott Suchman)

WASHINGTON, February 26, 2015 – The most recent act of Polar Vortex 2015 hit DC and vicinity last Saturday with a vengeance. But at the Kennedy Center, the show went on as scheduled, in this case, the Washington National Opera’s new production of Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” (“Dialogues des Carmélites”).

Alas, by all accounts, considerably fewer than 1,000 people managed to make it to this opening night performance. This reviewer was not among them, remaining stuck in Reston, Va., where the accumulated precip was even heavier and slipperier than it was in city center.

Fortunately, seats for the Feb. 23 performance were available, so that’s the one we attended. There were still a notable number of empty seats in the Kennedy Center Opera House that evening. But the audience size was at least reasonable, given the general distaste DC opera patrons generally seem to have for operatic works much newer than “Turandot.”

In trying to describe the music of “Dialogues,” perhaps a general comment on the composer’s musical output by American composer Ned Rorem catches its spirit best: “He was deeply devout and uncontrollably sensual.”

RELATED: The spiritual journey in Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites”

Mr. Rorem’s comment is a remarkably apt description of the Washington National Opera’s current English-language production of Poulenc’s opera. It is indeed deeply devout and uncontrollably sensual, resembling little if anything that’s been performed by this company in recent seasons.

“Dialogues of the Carmelites” is a profoundly moving and increasingly intense think-piece whose relatively slow-moving first half is heavy on personal insight that builds inexorably toward the second half’s gruesomely tragic yet beautiful finale.

Both this opera and this production rely heavily on the audience’s willingness to enter into and even embrace the minds and the faith of a community of nuns in a 21st century whose skepticism and often outright hostility to religious belief can present a serious perceptual barrier.

Those willing to accept the characters, the composer and the music at face value, however, will likely be moved to tears at the sight of women willing and perhaps even glad to lay down their lives for a greater glory that seems beyond us all—one that can only be reached by faith, humility and self-sacrifice.

The sense of a cloistered life—one that shuts out the madness and chaos of the world without, the better to support a life of prayerful contemplation—is remarkably reflected in Hildegard Bechtler’s starkly simple but extraordinarily apt and evocative rotating set, a set of parallel cylinders that have the appearance of being made of built-up plaster or exterior stucco in a neutral hue. They are deployed throughout to transport characters in and out of the action: a great way to implement this opera’s somewhat unconventional structure.

Although initially conceived as a conventional three-act opera, “Dialogues” is really 12 discrete scenarios, some of which are bridged by purely orchestral interludes, with each section beginning and ending with another rotation of the set.

Building on the interaction of scene and set and making things more visually arresting is Mark McCullough’s lighting design. The lighting illuminates those neutral, rotating walls with varying colors that suit each scene. They appear at times similar to vibrant burnt-orange or brown stucco or adobe exteriors you might see on homes and structures in Albuquerque or Santa Fe; in other, darker scenes, they take on the gray, metallic look of cisterns or prison walls.

Taken as a whole, the rotating walls and lighting schemes reflect the alternating mood shifts in this opera.

As we mentioned earlier, the plot of this opera, such as it is, has more to do with the elements of faith and inner conflict than it does with linear movement. Poulenc’s libretto, an adaptation of an earlier play by Georges Bernanos, does add enough exterior conflict to move the action forward, albeit an inch at a time.

Two sisters and a timid novice.
Will she or won’t she? Can timid Blanche make a commitment to a life of prayer? Or commit to anything? Dolora Zajick as Madame de Croissy, Elizabeth Bishop as Mother Marie, and Layla Claire as Blanche de la Force. Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.

The central intelligence of the story, if you will, is a young noblewoman named Blanche de la Force (Layla Claire). Deeply introverted and afflicted by both inner confusion and an almost existential fear, she seeks refuge from her apparently loving brother, the Chevalier (Shawn Mathey) and father, the Marquis (Alan Held).

She takes refuge in a Carmelite monastery housing a devout community of cloistered nuns, led by the formidable but fatally ill prioress, Madame de Croissy (Dolora Zajick), who is assisted by Mother Marie (Elizabeth Bishop), and is succeeded upon her death by a new prioress, Madame Lidoine (Leah Crocetto).

After opening with a domestic scene with Blanche, her brother and her father at the family’s estate, the bulk of the opera’s first half shifts to the Carmelites’ convent, wher Blanche enters as a novice.

Blanche is befriended by Sister Constance (Ashley Emerson), a sprightly novice whose ideas on spirituality and the afterlife are almost comically imaginative. Yet Sister Constance’s visions, including her prediction that she and Blanche will die together, will eventually prove to be eerily accurate.

The remainder of the opera’s first half does literally revolve around the “dialogues” of these Carmelite nuns, theological disputations and real-world speculations on the meaning of God, faith, the religious life and the temptations of the flesh.

This first portion reaches its surprisingly tense climax when a delirious, dying Madame de Croissy cries out in fear after witnessing a bloody vision of what is to befall both France and the sisters while also feeling the stark terror of her own death and questioning the benevolence of God.

The first part of this opera, then, is a spiritual, metaphysical journey of faith. But as the second half begins to unfold, the violent world of the decidedly anti-clerical French Reign of Terror intrudes, as the sisters must choose between abandoning their convent, their religious habits and their beliefs and facing the horror of the guillotine should they resist.

In this way, the first half of the opera visits the spiritual world of the sisters. Their vow to resist the power of the temporal world in the second half is what leads to their doom.

For this reason, the opera’s first half unfolds slowly and without apparent direction. It’s sung mostly in recitative, placing the sisters’ “dialogues” or spiritual disputations in many cases, ahead of the music—a major reason the composer encouraged the use of each nation’s vernacular in performances of the work. He wanted his audiences to fully grasp the reasoning, the meaning and the prayer behind the sisters’ eventual collective decision to choose death over abandoning their prayerful way of life.

In the current WNO production, the first half will seem to some to be quite ponderous and perhaps even uninteresting. While the orchestral music is enticing, the solo voices are mostly in narrative mode here, save for Madame de Croissy’s wrestling match with death.

It’s best, then, to focus as much as possible on the “dialogues,” as these provide the rationale for temporal action. As the orchestra, alas, frequently washes over the soloists in this portion of the opera, paying closer attention than usual to the helpful surtitles is the most useful way to navigate this part of the journey.

The sisters commence their final journey.
The sisters are forced to exchange their religious habits for street clothes as they are about to be evicted from their abbey. The cross symbolizes the final journey they are about to take. (Credit: Scott Suchman)

As the second part begins, however, the music becomes considerably more dramatic. The largely female cast is augmented by the appearance of the beleaguered and hunted chaplain (Robert Baker) and a pair of amoral and threatening commissioners (Christian Bowers and Yi Li).

The pace picks up further as they are joined by a chorus of club- and pitchfork-wielding French peasants eager to slaughter nuns and priests, who are viewed by the Revolutionaries (with some justification) as being wholly complicit in the oppression of French citizens by the aristocracy.

In the end, the largely anti-religious forces of evil will gain the upper hand. And yet they will lose when they witness first-hand the horror they have wrought

We move then from the passive to the active, from the contemplative to the dramatic, from the religious to the secular. It’s all pretty intellectual at the beginning, but it’s visceral and all-too-real at the end. That includes this opera’s then-unintentional parallels with our own world in 2015, one characteristic of which is a frightening reprise of the French Terror, this time waged upon the entire civilized world by bloodthirsty Middle Eastern madmen busily re-creating the same kind of terror with knives and swords instead of the guillotine.

WNO’s production builds majestically to its terrible yet noble climax under the steady direction of the company’s artistic director, Francesca Zambello. She instinctively grasps the composer’s faith and vision and moves her cast steadily but forcefully along its path to its inevitable end in a story that is as frightening as it is inspirational.

The only fault here is largely evident in the production’s first half, where some of the singing is placed too far into the stage to overcome Poulenc’s gorgeous but sometimes overwhelming orchestral accompaniment.

Most of the soloists get interesting things to sing, but this is not a conventional opera with conventional arias. With the exception of Shawn Mathey’s impressive Chevalier de la Force and Robert Baker’s highly effective, fugitive chaplain, most of the male singers are in and out in one scene, although they sing their roles notably well.

It’s the ladies here who get to sing more substantial roles, although, again, many of these are small. Standouts here are a pair of veteran singers, mezzo-sopranos Dolora Zajick and Elizabeth Bishop as Madame de Croissy and Mother Marie.

Ms. Zajick’s role is relatively brief but memorably intense, particularly in what is effectively her elderly and dying Prioress’ mad scene, as upsetting and terrifying as it can possibly be. It is sung powerfully, at times savagely and acted brilliantly, foreshadowing her character’s own final agony and terror as well as the greater terror that is to come.

Ms. Bishop’s Mother Marie is a more nuanced role. She is less authoritarian than her prioress, and arguably more compassionate, particularly toward the conflicted Blanche. Yet she too has nerves of steel, ultimately selling her fellow sisters on their final act of collective self-immolation. Ms. Bishop adds authority and vocal heft to the role, and in Monday evening’s performance had little problem soaring above Poulenc’s dynamic orchestration.

Just as Madame de Croissy and Sister Marie (and later, new Prioress Madame Lidoine) form a philosophical pair, so too do the novices Sister Constance and the abbey’s newest recruit, Blanche de la Force.

Soprano Ashley Emerson’s Constance is a breath of fresh air in this opera’s sometimes heavy atmosphere, injecting wit, insouciance and a bit of unpredictability into her role, plus a welcome dash of humor. But if she’s a bit of a fool, she’s God’s Fool, and comes through with great dignity in the end, and Ms. Emerson is touching and endearing throughout.

As Blanche, soprano Layla Claire has the hardest role in this production. Blanche is confused, fearful, spiritually and temporally weak, and driven almost entirely by fears both subtle and obvious. She’s afraid of marriage, afraid of God, and, understandably, afraid of death—which makes her the only one of the sisters who actually attempts to flee from her impending martyrdom.

But Blanche is also the center of the opera, the reluctant heroine who must somehow find a way to rise above her own lack of courage and sense of inferiority.

Blanche is us. Her story is our story as we try to rise above our limitations to reach our better selves. And in grasping this, Ms. Claire has some of her finest thespian and vocal moments, with her rich but still youthful soprano articulating struggle at some moments and bursting out in conviction during others.

The ensemble of nuns and the chorus turn in generally excellent performances, again excepting some of the first half’s inaudible moments. The combined forces are particularly compelling in the opera’s final climactic moments—one of the most dramatic and moving scenes we’ve seen this company produce over many years.

With the exception of some inexplicably nasty but blessedly brief fumbles in the brass, WNO’s orchestra, under the expert baton of Washington Concert Opera’s popular conductor Anthony Walker gave Poulenc’s colorful score the kind of deeply gratifying Deco Music/liturgical music blend this opera deserves.

Four performances of “Dialogues of the Carmelites” remain. I would urge those avoiding Poulenc’s operatic masterpiece just because it was written in the 20th century to overcome their reticence and buy a ticket to one of these performances.

This is an opera that’s intellectually and spiritually challenging, musically lush and unique, and ironically up to date with regard to its subject matter. And it’s penned by a composer who constantly grew throughout his musical life, appearing here at his very best in this blend of French insouciance and spiritual reverence.

“Dialogues of the Carmelites” is an original, one of a kind. As the final scene comes to its abrupt, tragic and memorable end, most patrons will not regret taking a chance on an opera that’s entirely and unexpectedly different.

Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)


The Washington National Opera production of Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” continues through March 10 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Running time is approximately 3 hours including a single 20-minute intermission.

Tickets and information: Tickets range from $25 – $300. For more details visit the Washington National Opera section of the Kennedy Center’s website or call  800-444-1324.

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