Snow and freezing slush blanketed the city Saturday, but the Kennedy Center soldiered on. In the afternoon, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande offered what was by all accounts a fine concert; in the evening, several hundred hardy souls gathered for the Washington National Opera’s first performance of Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” Francesca Zambello, the WNO’s artistic director and the stage director of the evening’s performance, invited audience members to move closer to the stage, filling in the empty seats.
The performance was a little cold itself, but for different reasons.
“Carmelites,” about the death of an entire order of nuns during the French Revolution, is a powerful, film-like opera that has become a 20th-century classic. Don’t confuse “film-like,” though, with “historical drama.” The “Carmelites” libretto did originate as a film screenplay, and it’s wordy — Poulenc himself preferred to have it performed in the audience’s native language to facilitate comprehension, and the WNO gave it in English. But the opera focuses on ideas more than actions: Its antiheroine, Blanche de la Force, takes refuge from her chronic fear by becoming a nun, and the opera is as much about her coming to terms with her terror as it is about the larger events of the world outside.
Unfortunately, Zambello’s production went a bit too far in the “historical drama” direction. It wasn’t the fault of Hildegard Bechtler’s beautiful sets, cylindrical sections of wall that evoked a Richard Serra sculpture, rotating so that they now enclosed a space, now shutting us and the singers out while the lighting (Mark McCullough) made them appear now rusted metal, now forbidding concrete. But the sets did act as an aestheticizing presence, offering polished, sleek spaces into which to breathe life; and under Zambello’s direction, the characters remained just as polished and sleek and distant.
It’s hard to fault a production that gets the job done. But on Saturday, while every box was dutifully checked, every narrative “I” dotted and “T” crossed, the story didn’t grab you as it can. There’s a lot of emotion in this discursive piece, but it was cloaked, here, under too much elegant restraint.
Even the poignant scene in which the nuns are forced to don civilian clothes lacked bite; they seemed merely to be exchanging one uniform for another. And sending the chorus across the stage at intervals, brandishing pitchforks and waving French flags, ended up working simply as a shot of historical color, rather than highlighting, as I think it was intended to, the pervasive difference in this opera between the intimacy of the drama happening within the walls and the turbulence without.
The orchestra, too, lacked emotional wallop, in part because it simply didn’t play very well; the winds and horns struggled in particular. Conductor Antony Walker opened the piece with the same taut, upbeat mien he brings to bel canto at the Washington Concert Opera, where he is music director, but it sounded a little misplaced here, almost formulaic. And he wasn’t able to marshal the forces into a distinguished follow-up.
Many of us who love opera think that a strong cast ought to be able to make up for all such deficits, and sometimes it does. The WNO certainly marshaled a group of fine singers for this one, and they did their level best in the face of obstacles that in a different opera might have mattered less. If anyone can animate a scene, it’s Dolora Zajick, who offered a moving and powerful accounting of her first outing as Madame de Croissy, the Old Prioress, whose flawed and very human death, questioning God and raging against her fate, is one of the opera’s emotional centers. Zajick’s voice, with a hint of metal at the back of the upper notes and cavernous expansion in the lower ones, is still a couple of sizes bigger than most people’s, and as an actress, too, she delivered the goods.
As Blanche, Layla Claire, in her company debut, showed a strong, warm soprano that gave definition to a complicated role. Also debuting, Leah Crocetto made a strong showing as Madame Lidoine, the New Prioress, a character who in some productions is unsympathetic but whom Crocetto made generally endearing. Ashley Emerson reprised the role of Sister Constance that she played in St. Louis last summer, with the same radiant innocence, though it got a bit lost in this more-austere setting. Alan Held was deluxe casting for the relatively small role of the Marquis de la Force, Blanche’s father, and Shawn Mathey gave profile to the often somewhat wimpy part of Blanche’s adoring brother.
It’s rare that the cast and look of a production can be so strong and yet the production can fall flat. I hope that the cold-weather pall of opening night melts away in future performances so that these fine singers end up with a better showcase.
Performances continue through March 10 at the Kennedy Center Opera House.