By Rob Levy
In dramatic terms, Dialogues of the Carmelites is as intense as any film by Lars Van Trier or Quentin Tarantino.
Francis Poulenc’s second opera is perhaps his most famous. Its subjust is the sixteen Carmelite nuns of Compiègne, who were executed during the Reign of Terror in 1794. These brave sisters, in refusing to renounce their vocation, showed indelible courage by remaining loyal to their faith. This twentieth century opera has an almost filmic quality to it: it is both epic and tragic, as its protagonists find themselves at the center of a maelstrom of events they cannot control.
That is not by happenstance. The roots of the opera can be traced first to a novella and then to a proposed film. Failing to reach the silver screen, the work was then adapted unsuccessfully for the stage before it landed in the hands of Poulenc, who thought this story of martyrdom would be ideal as an opera.
Timing is everything, and this opera is filled with it. Blanche De La Force is an aristocrat who yearns for something more than the good life. Like many of her class, Blanche fears that the revolution is coming to her doorstep, and she wants no part of it.
As the opera opens Blanche informs her father that she is leaving home to answer a higher calling. She joins the Carmelite order in Compiègne but finds that the Mother Superior is not thrilled to have her in their commune: the ailing Prioress, Madame De Croissy, has a premonition that her arrival will bring ruin to them. Nonetheless, she takes Blanche under her wing and encourages her to find her true self.
The first half of the opera closes with the death of the Prioress and a sense of looming dread. Things only get worse as the revolution, which suppresses religious orders, comes to the monastery. This places Blanche and the other sisters in great peril, since they are housing an aristocrat in addition to their other supposed “crimes.” As Blanche flees, the sisters are sentenced to execution by guillotine. All seems lost — but the sisters’ inner strength is their absolute faith.
The great thing about Poulenc’s opera is the music. Conductor Ward Stare and members of the St. Louis Symphony do an excellent job of framing the tension on tage with a score that is at times both perfectly subtle and necessarily overstated. The score is as tenuous as the Carmelites themselves and it perfectly underpins the production.
Native St Louisan and opera legend Christina Brewer returns to Opera theatre as Madame Lidoine. Although she has a smaller role her presence is felt with yet another superb performance. Brewer is one of the biggest names in contemporary opera and having her appear in the opera is quite a coup.
Soprano and audience favorite Kelly Kaduce stars as Blanche. In the role she excels at bringing both a naïve vulnerability and inner turmoil to the character. The result is yet another powerful performance of a strong female character. Kaduce is the glue that holds the production together. She holds her own with some heavy hitters onstage, enhancing her reputation as one of opera’s young American talents.
As the Prioress Madame De Crossiy, another favorite, Meredith Arwady steals the first half of the production. Playing a dying character is never easy and she simply takes over the part and pours ever fiber of her being into the role. She creates a sense of empathy that connects with the audience; she is a commanding force to be reckoned with. A dynamo onstage she does a balancing act of being at the core of the drama without overshadowing Kaduce or her other cast mates.
There also is a sterling debut from mezzo-soprano Daveda Karanas as Mother Marie who holds her own amidst a cast of audience favorites and OTSL veterans.
Dialogues of the Carmelites is a tragedy and infinite despair and sadness. Yet the music, set design and performances from an all-star cast makes it the perfect closing note for Opera Theatre’s 39th season. It’s penetrating production that stays with you long after you leave your seat. The ensemble does it job by creating an opera that is vividly heroic, passionate and heart wrenching.