Blanche is Not an Asset to the Abbey: Dialogues des Carmelites at the Metropolitan Opera in Review

For the first time in ten years, the Met revived its iconic production of Francis Poulenc’s opera, Dialogues des Carmelites- Dialogues of the Carmelites, which opened this afternoon. At the heart of the story is the eviction of a convent of Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution.  The nuns are from a wide spectrum of personalities, but each is subservient under the eyes of God.

As the name tells you, the opera is “Dialogues”, which means that the performance is essentially three hours of beautifully orchestrated recitatives, with maybe two or three arias throughout the entire performance. If this opera is not given a first class production or first class singers, it’s bound to be a long and miserable outing to the theater.

The 1977 production by John Dexter is one of the few Met productions that can really be called “classic”. Other examples of “classic” Met productions would be Zeffirelli’s La Boheme or Turandot. One could even debate that Robert O’Hearn’s production of Rosenkavalier is “classic”. (Fact: The Robert O’Hearn Rosenkavalier is the oldest Met production currently in rep. It is from 1968.)

The entire opera takes place on a huge, raked, wooden cross that covers a lot of the stage as seen below. The changes in scenes are marked by the lowering and raising of various set pieces that suggest different atmospheres. In a word, I would describe the production as “detached”, which is symbolic in and of itself since the nuns are “detached” from the world.

Vocally, this performance was almost perfect. It always surprises me what a wide range of singers a company needs to employ to cast this opera. You need everything from veristas to hearty mezzos to chirpy sopranos.

Today’s Dialogues was defined by the affective and gripping performances of four women: Elizabeth Bishop as Mere Marie, Erin Morely as Constance, Felicity Palmer as Madame de Croissy, and Patricia Racette as Madame Lidoine.

Bishop’s sensitive performance as one of the mothers and rule keepers of the convent was well sung and exemplified supportive technique. Singers that make me stressed when they sing just ruin the performance for me. That was nowhere near the case with Ms. Bishop whose high notes soared above the large orchestra and whose hefty low notes dominated the scenes. Bishop also gets extra props because after this performance, she sang Fricka in Das Rheingold at the Met just a few hours later.

Erin Morely was perfect as the chirpy Constance. She had a crystalline voice and a young, pious stage energy that made her walk to the guillotine the most moving. The same can be said for Patricia Racette who is a consistent pleasure onstage. It says a lot about a performer’s presence when you can identify her easily when she’s onstage wearing the same clothes as 20 other women. She guided the order with her expressive acting and passionate singing. Her voice isn’t a light voice, but it’s clear and relatively high set, which allows her to play a variety of roles very well. In fact, she sang Blanche in the production in 2003.

Finally, Felicity Palmer gave the most convicting death scene I have ever seen in opera. Vocally, she is a marvel at 69. She sang 100% audibly and with passion and duty. She was an arresting performer and her weighty voice set a standard for the low voices of the afternoon.

Unfortunately, recent Tucker Award winner Isabel Leonard was not up to the challenge. The role of Blanche, the main character who runs away from her home to join the nuns is a soprano role. While usually a charming singer, Isabel Leonard is a mezzo, and a darn good one at that. However, her voice just did not carry in the house and she made Blanche who is an enigma of a woman, into a fairly somber and one dimensional woman. She did not match Morely’s youthful energy which was a shame. However, for a mezzo, her soprano high notes were surprisingly strong. She definitely warmed up after the first half, but an emotional opera deserves an emotional performance.

Patricia Racette in Dialogues des Carmelites

Also standouts in the cast were Paul Appleby as Blanche’s brother, Chevalier de la Force. Unfortunately, her father, The Marquis, sung by David Pittsinger, spent most of his short scene strained with many of his notes, few of which were even particularly high. The guards of Scott Scully and Richard Bernstein were equally strong and Patrick Carfizzi gave a chilling performance in the small role of the jailer who reads the nuns their death sentences. Mark Schowalter was highly effective as the victimized chaplain.

Louis Langree led an expert performance of Poulenc’s complex and intriguing score. It, like the nuns, was properly detached and he kept in great tempo with the singers. Occasionally, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra would overwhelm a singer, but it was mostly a fantastic reading. Even thought the Metropolitan Opera Chorus only sings for about ten seconds-combined- in the opera, they were still very good.

While there are times where Dexter’s production, under the revival direction of Sarah Ina Meyers, sags a little bit, the good-as in rip-your-heart-out emotional- outweighs the bad. It’s a shame it wasn’t transmitted in HD this season, especially since this is probably the last revival of it unless they keep it around. David Reppa’s sets were sparse and suggestive of the convent worked well with the basic and traditional costumes of Jane Greenwood. Gil Wechsler’s dark lighting was very appropriate for the dark production. The staging of the final scene is especially evocative, as seen below:

Poulenc’s music is truly indescribable.  You can’t put a tag like “baroque” or “romantic” or “neoclassical” on it. Will there ever be a “perfect” performance of “Dialogues”? Probably not. Did today’s performance rip my heart straight out of my chest? Of course. Is that what good opera is supposed to do? Yes. Yes it is.

And that, my friend, is how you bring an opera season to a close.

All photos courtesy of Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

4 comments on “Blanche is Not an Asset to the Abbey: Dialogues des Carmelites at the Metropolitan Opera in Review

  1. Are you sure you are not 50 years old in disguise?????? You write so beautifully….

  2. Excellent review! “Dialogues” is a fascinating opera, not least because it’s full of multilayered female characters who depart from the usual operatic “types” of ingenue, lover, mother or bad girl… I loved studying it at UCLA!

  3. So wonderful that you got to SEE this opera – as you say, it has to be first-class or it will be a long night. You are a great ambassador for opera and I hope you are bringing lots of your peers to it, either literally or through this blog. I wish I had discovered opera much earlier, but it’s never too late!

  4. I was bored to tears. And 1130am is not a good time for opera.

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