Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Intimations of mortality

Photo: Ken Howard
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Who: Opera Theatre of St. Louis
What: Dialogues of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc
When: June 18–28, 2014
Where: The Loretto-Hilton Center

On July 17th, 1794, the sixteen women of the monastery of the Carmel of Compiègne in France were guillotined by the revolutionary government for refusing to abandon their vows and their community. The execution, which is widely believed to have been instrumental in bringing about the end of the Reign of Terror ten days later, inspired a novella, a play, and finally, Francis Poulenc's opera "Dialogues of the Carmelites" in 1953.

Opera Theatre's production is a good one, but I have to confess that I don't find the text of "Dialogues" all that persuasive. Adapted by the composer from the play by French Catholic writer Georges Bernanos (which was itself based the novella "The Last One at the Scaffold” by the German author Gertrud von Le Fort), the libretto far too often descends in to a mere recitation of Catholic dogma. Furthermore, as Erica Jeal noted in her review of a Royal Opera House production last month, "some of Poulenc's scenes linger beyond their usefulness to the story."

The story centers on Blanche de la Force, a young woman so consumed with fear that she screams at shadows. In an effort to escape her dread of life, she joins the convent, even though the mother superior, Madame de Croissy, is unsure of her motivation.

Kelly Kaduce
Photo: Ken Howard
Blanche soon becomes friends with cheerful (if absurdly naïve) Sister Constance and starts to settle into convent life—only to have her world turned upside down when the Reign of Terror seizes the monastery's assets and demands that the nuns abandon their community and become ordinary citizens. They refuse, deciding instead to take a vow of martyrdom. Blanche panics and runs at the last minute, but returns in the final scene to embrace death along with her compatriots.

That scene is easily the most riveting the opera. Poulenc has the nuns, now wearing the secular clothes forced on them by their jailers, singing "Salve Regina" as, one by one, they are led to the scaffold and executed. The choir becomes smaller and smaller until only Blanche is left. Her death is followed by two soft, mournful chords, a final note in the low strings, and silence.

Christine Brewer and nuns
Photo: Ken Howard
Following what appears to be a recent trend in productions of this opera, stage director Robin Guarino keeps the nuns on stage for their death scene. They all sign their character names on the upstage wall in charcoal and then walk, one by one, into the large rectangular set piece that is used for most of the interior scenes. As the blade descends (an unnervingly realistic sound effect from the percussion section), each singer drops her head to her chest and takes a seat at a bench inside the rectangle. At the end the benches are filled with downcast nuns, forever silent. Curtain.

It's a potent image and while I would have preferred the empty stage implied by the libretto to mirror the silence in the orchestra, I have to admit that it works. Indeed, the production generally makes good dramatic choices. Andrew Lieberman's stark set—there is nothing on stage aside from that big rectangular box, which shifts easily on wheels to suggest scene changes—emphasizes the stark choices available to the nuns and allows an uninterrupted dramatic flow.

The cast of this production is excellent, all the way down to the smallest parts. There are far too many of them (twenty-seven named roles) for me to list them all, so I'll concentrate on the principals.

L-R: Kelly Kaduce and Ashley Emerson
Photo: Ken Howard
Soprano Kelly Kaduce adds another feather to her already plumage-heavy cap as Blanche, credibly portraying the character's fear and doubt. Soprano Ashley Emerson is equally persuasive, making Sister Constance's simple faith charming rather than foolish (as it might seem in lesser hands). Both women sing like angels.

Contralto Meredith Arwady brings impressive vocal power and impeccable diction to the role of Madame de Croissy. Her death scene, in which her faith fails her at the end, was as harrowing as it should be. Local favorite Christine Brewer is also a vocal powerhouse as the replacement Prioress Madame Lidoine, who leads her charges to martyrdom.

Making her OTSL debut as Mother Marie, who becomes Blanche's mentor, mezzo Daveda Karanas has an arresting presence that makes it impossible not to watch her when she's on stage. She matches that with a fine, clear voice.

L-R: Meredith Arwady and Daveda Karanas
Photo: Ken Howard
Making his second appearance in the OTSL pit, former St. Louis Symphony Resident Conductor Ward Stare leads the orchestra in a forceful and impassioned reading of Poulenc's wonderfully transparent and appealing score. Some critics have compared it to film music in the way it supports and underlines the action on stage. It's not a bad analogy and, in fact, there is a cinematic quality to this production with its fluid scene changes and James F. Ingalls's dramatic lighting.

I find the theological and historical perspective of "Dialogues of the Carmelites" suspect at best and somewhat appalling at worst. The libretto glosses over the real oppression that led to the revolution—along with the Church's support for that oppression—and dotes on death in a way that frankly becomes a bit creepy. But maybe that's just because I'm a lapsed Catholic; your mileage, as they say, may vary.

The important point is that Opera Theatre is making a very strong case for "Dialogues of the Carmelites." Performances continue through June 28th at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. To get the full festival experience, come early and have a picnic supper on the lawn or under the refreshment tent. You can bring your own food or purchase a gourmet supper in advance from Ces and Judy's. Drinks are available on site as well, or you can bring your own. For more information: experienceopera.org.

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