United States Poulenc, Dialogues des Carmélites: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor) broadcast live from the Metropolitan Opera, New York to the Dundonald Omniplex, Belfast 11.5.2019. (RB)
Production – John Dexter
Set Designer – David Reppa
Costume Designer – Jane Greenwood
Lighting Designer – Gil Wechsler
Blanche de la Force – Isabel Leonard
Mme Lidoine – Adrianne Pieczonka
Constance – Erin Morley
Mother Marie – Karen Cargill
Mme de Croissy – Karita Mattila
Chevalier de la Force – David Portillo
Marquis de la Force – Jean-François Lapointe
Live in HD Director – Gary Halvorson
Live in HD Host – Renée Fleming
The Met brought its 2018-19 season to a close with a revival of John Dexter’s classic 1977 production of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Camélites. Poulenc’s masterpiece was first staged in 1957 and it has remained in the repertoire ever since. It is an intoxicating mixture of dark brooding spirituality, sublime contemplation, and the clash of faith and anti-clericalism.
Poulenc wrote the libretto himself and he based it on an unproduced screenplay by Georges Bernanos. It depicts events which take place between 1789 and 1794 during the French Revolution in Paris and the town of Compiègne in north-eastern France. The opera focuses on the aristocratic Blanche de la Force and her entry into the Carmelite order. Blanche must overcome her natural timidity in order to answer her true calling. In the second half of the opera the French revolutionary forces expel the nuns from their convent but they take a vow of martyrdom before leaving. Blanche initially goes into hiding while the other nuns are sentenced to death. At the end of the opera she joins the other nuns on their way to the guillotine. They sing the Salve Regina as the sound of the guillotine depicts the dreadful events happening offstage.
Poulenc gives his nuns tonal music to sing and he incorporates religious texts into the work including the Ave Maria and Ave Verum Corpus in Act II and the Salve Regina in the climactic final scene. The libretto is set largely in recitative and the music is engineered to follow closely natural speech patterns. Poulenc scored the opera for large orchestra, although he often uses smaller instrumental groups to achieve particular colourings. The music owes a clear debt to Debussy’s Pelléas, although Poulenc conjures the bricks and pillars of the eternal church rather than the water music of Debussy.
The production opened in a striking way with a group of nuns lying prostrate on the ground, arms outstretched in the cruciform, within the outline of a giant cross. Minimal staging descended from the ceiling as we moved to the house of the Marquis de la Force where a discussion took place about whether Blanche should enter the convent. When we finally entered the convent at Compiègne the set was very sparse and props were kept to a minimum. The dark, de minimis nature of the set fitted perfectly with the very sombre ascetic setting. In the final Act, fluid scene changes were managed very deftly by the cast and crew. In the final scene we saw the nuns making their own walk of agony before the baying crowd until the terrifying blade of the guillotine finally extinguished their song.
There was an extraordinary heaviness and rapt intensity about the music in Act I as the nuns of Compiègne took their first steps on the road to Calvary. This was in large part down to the extraordinary performance of Karita Mattila who brought the desperately ill Mme de Croissy vividly to life. She was magnificent in the long death bed scene and one could see her becoming increasingly wracked with pain. Mattila sang with penetrating power in lower tessitura and one could hear the pain in her voice as she became increasingly desperate. Her final cries proclaiming that God had forsaken her were a dramatic tour de force. Blanche de la Force is a complex character and Isabel Leonard’s performance was nuanced and insightful. She has a plush, rich-toned voice and all her vocal entries were immaculate. She reined back the naturally timid Blanche when required but at key dramatic moments she sang with intensity and beauty of sound. Leonard’s ability to tailor her vocal entries in this way made her a compelling character on stage – it was impossible to take your eyes off her.
As Sister Constance, Erin Morley did a wonderful job lightening the mood in the first of her vocal entries. She sang with an infectious optimism and a sweet purity of sound which succeeded in winning the audience over. The contrast with later scenes where she was grappling with her fears and the enormity of what was happening to her was striking. Karen Cargill’s Mother Marie was a spiky character and a stickler for the rules. She stood in sharp contrast to Adrianne Pieczonka’s Mme Lidoine, who tried to soothe the sisters and calm their fears. Cargill’s Marie was strident and forceful while Pieczonka’s Lidoine sang with a luminous legato. David Portillo and Jean-François Lapointe did an excellent job in their respective roles and I was particularly impressed with Portillo’s dialogue with Leonard in Act II.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Met Orchestra did a wonderful job with Poulenc’s distinctly French sonorities. I was particularly struck with some of the visceral orchestral effects which Nézet-Séguin conjured up in the opening scene with the Marquis de la Force. Elsewhere, small instrumental groupings combined to create subtle refined colours which complemented the singers beautifully. Nézet-Séguin kept a tight grip on tempo throughout, allowing the music to move at its own meandering pace but injecting momentum when required. This tight control meant that the final scene when it came was all the more overwhelming.
This was a great way to finish the 2018-19 season at the Met. All the performers brought enormous commitment, attention to detail and technical perfection to their roles. It is difficult to imagine Poulenc’s masterpiece being performed any better, so bravo to all concerned.
For more about The Met: Live in HD for 2019-20 click here.