When people ask me what opera is, my short, go-to answer is usually “a play where the dialogue is sung”. In Dialogues des Carmélites, Francis Poulenc’s 1956 opera about a convent of Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution, that definition holds true. Their story of faith and martyrdom comes to life at Caramoor on July 25th as the second installment of 2015’s Bel Canto at Caramoor series. Conducted by Will Crutchfield with a cast that includes names like Deborah Polaski, Hei Kyung Hong, and Jennifer Larmore, the dramatic impact of this opera is augmented by Victoria Crutchfield‘s staging and virtuosic playing by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s.
The two most basic components of any opera are the music and the libretto. For many operas, through, one is usually stronger than the other. Dialogues is a rarity for its strength in both categories. It combines the taut drama and compelling characterizations necessary to any good play with gorgeous and evocative music. “Poulenc found the way to spin music straight through the threads of this drama almost like a background soundtrack,” says conductor and Director of Opera at Caramoor, Will Crutchfield, “It leads us through serious, thorny questions of faith and human suffering through sensuous music and hair-raising drama.”
Those serious and thorny questions are addressed throughout the course of the opera in a libretto by Poulenc fashioned after a play by Georges Bernanos. The story focuses on Blanche de la Force, a mousy society girl who enters a Carmelite convent to “escape” from the outside world where the French Revolution threatens her family’s status. Life inside the convent proves to be no less taxing, with a distinct group of nuns who, though they differ in many ways, are united by their strong faith and sense of community. In one of the most moving final scenes in all of opera, the nuns march to the guillotine, voices raised in a final hymn, to die for their religion.
Don’t let that grim ending deter you from Poulenc’s expressive opera, though. Dialogues offers something for everyone, especially those who might be attending their first opera. “Exactly because of its theatrical qualities, I think this is an ideal piece, maybe the ideal piece, for someone who isn’t yet accustomed to the ways and means of traditional opera,” says Maestro Crutchfield. Additionally, Poulenc’s distinctive musical language is a point of interest for seasoned opera lovers while falling easily on the ears of new ones. “Poulenc preferred to find his novelties in the language of pop music or the parts of Classical music that were still inventing new ways to relate complex combinations of notes to simple ones. He found himself able to say a great variety of things through that style,” the Maestro adds.
Dialogues des Carmélites represents an exciting new time in the history of Bel Canto at Caramoor. It’s a departure from the typical bel canto opera of the mid-18th century, but fans of the beautiful voices and grand musical passages typical of the style need not fear. “This is a 20th-century opera for bel canto voices,” Maestro Crutchfield reassures. “It has to have beautiful, radiant voices to match the sounds of the orchestra. When you watch those brave innocents singing the praises of God while they walk to the guillotine, you’ve lived a slice of their life with them, you know what got them to that moment – there is nothing in theater more powerful than that.”
Dialogues des Carmélites will be performed on July 25th at the Caramoor Festival. Tickets are available here and more information is available here.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am employed by Caramoor during this summer’s Festival Season. More information about Caramoor can be found here.