'Carmelites,' Outdated but Still Fervent
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 2, 2004; Page C05
One wonders whether the time for Francis Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites" (1957) has come and gone. Much of the music is pretty in a Stravinsky-and-sugar sort of way, and the final scene remains smashingly effective musical drama. Yet I can't believe I was alone in finding this ecstatic paean to religious martyrdom not only wrongheaded but curiously repellent as it surged through Lisner Auditorium on Friday night.
A quarter-century back, John Dexter's spartan staging of "Dialogues" at the Metropolitan Opera won the piece a world audience. The Met rendition was telecast and remains in the repertory; few operas have been so universally defined by a single production. Therefore, it took some courage for Opera International to mount "Dialogues," and it is to the company's credit that the results were so involving. Muriel von Villas's direction was sweeping and intimate, while Edward Roberts led his small, scruffy orchestra with an easy command of the score's musical vector.
The opera, set to a libretto by Georges Bernanos, takes place in the final days of the French Revolution and is based on an actual incident -- the state-sanctioned slaughter of a group of Carmelite nuns at Compiegne on July 17, 1794. And rarely outside of recent presidential politics has the line separating "good" characters from "evil" characters been marked so bluntly.
Now, French Revolution-bashing is a fine and noble sport; this leveling, regicidal frolic made way for the even more ghastly "people's republics" that were to come. But religious fanaticism is no picnic either, as we have learned to our cost, and Poulenc's exaltation of an anxious young woman who renounces family, friends and romantic satisfaction to join an extreme sect of Carmelites that shuts her away to prepare for martyrdom is a strange enthusiasm indeed.
Current dogma to the contrary, 9/11 didn't "change everything," but I do think it may have made some of us more skeptical of profoundly denatured human behavior and a little less likely to bathe it in such roseate light as Poulenc and Bernanos provide. When I was young, I saw the glowing self-sacrifice of Sister Blanche, Sister Constance and the others through a sentimental haze: Their story was tragic, to be sure, but shot through with the presumed, redemptive nobility of dying for a cause. Now the story just seems tragic -- period -- and on Friday, I found myself deeply resistant to the manipulations of the composer and librettist to make it anything more than that.
Still, there were many rewards. Jessica Swink's bright, radiant portrayal of Blanche stood out musically and dramatically: This is a lovely young artist. Jane-Anne Tucker's stratospheric range served her well as the perky Constance. Kyle Engler emoted powerfully as the Prioress, whose faith fails her just when it is needed most. Hai-Bo Bai brought a grim dignity to the role of the new Prioress. Erich Parce made an elegant, compassionate Marquis de la Force, horrified by what he sees as his daughter's renunciation of the world. There was worthy support from Jingma Fan, Patrick Toomey and Kathryn Honan-Carter.
The late critic and composer Virgil Thomson had one central test of any opera: Does it work? "Carmelites" works. It seizes one's attention from the start and holds it tight throughout. The characters of Blanche, Constance and the Prioress, at least, are full-fledged personalities. The finale excites and horrifies in equal measure, deftly blending thrills and piety in a manner not unlike the conclusion of "The Godfather." And, if world events have made the opera's fervent, single-minded righteousness seem less admirable than before . . . well, it is not a perfect world. Poulenc and Bernanos would surely agree.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Jane-Anne Tucker, left, and Jessica Swink in "Dialogues of the Carmelites."