Dialogues of the Carmelites - Review of Lyric Opera of Chicago Premiere

The Carmelites

As we approached the Civic Opera House, we observed a large crowd gathered outside the door waiting in the cold for the doors to open so they could attend the lecturer before the premiere presentation of Dialogues of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc. This masterpiece is heartbreaking and because it deals with difficult themes, many regular Lyric Opera attendees were looking to the Roger Pines' pre-opera lecture to offer them a better understanding of the opera. His presentation was excellent and I strongly recommend coming early to hear what he has to say. He commented, 'This is an opera that can change lives'.

This is a very unusual opera as there is no love interest, has male singers in supporting roles only, and does not emphasize revenge, lust or other themes familiar to opera lovers. Instead, its principal characters are motivated by faith. The true story on which this opera was based occurred during the French Revolution. In 1794, at the height of the French Revolution, 16 French Carmelite Nuns were imprisoned and executed. Francois-Genevieve Phillipe was the one Nun who survived and left a memoir of her life as a Carmelite during a harrowing period. This memoir fascinated German writer, Gertrud von le Fort who wrote a short, powerful novel published in 1931, 'The Last at the Scaffold'. This novel attracted the interest of Fr. Raymond Bruckberger, a Dominican Priest who persuaded Georges Bernanos, the most celebrated French Catholic writer to write a screenplay. This film with Jeanne Moreau as Mother Marie was eventually produced in 1960. Georges Bernanos was dying as he wrote the story and in it wrestled with his own fear of death. He addresses the Christian idea that you can stand in other people's shoes and do things for them, like pray for them, suffer for them and even die for them, which becomes part of the Nun's dialogues. This idea permeates the discussion between Blanche de la Force (a fictional character), Mme de Croissy, Sister Constance and the formidable Mother Marie.

Sister Constance and Blanche

The film script was seen as a play by Poulenc who felt it would transfer well to opera so instead of writing ballet music requested by the opera house, he set to work on Dialogues. He worked on this with such intensity that he suffered a nervous breakdown and spent time in a Swiss clinic. Dialogues was first premiered in Italian at La Scala in January of 1957 and in the original French version on June 21, 1957 by the Paris Theatre National de l'Opera and currently receives its Lyric Opera of Chicago premiere 50 years later.

Chevalier and Blanche de la Force

Poulenc scored for an opera orchestra with triple wind parts, two harps, a piano and a guillotine. He said of his music, 'It seems that my Carmelites can only sing tonal music. You must forgive them.' And what music it is. This opera united Poulenc's theatrical and musical gifts with his profound religious faith.

Madame Lidoine offers hope and comfort to the Nuns

Lyric's general director, William Mason's assessment is, 'This opera presents an incredibly powerful experience. It never fails-by the end you're just blown away by the drama, and the emotional impact of the music.' This was my experience also. The staging was powerful and created a dark mood. The use of black and white in more variations than one can imagine built drama that was subtle, powerful, dark, and foreboding. The music was beautiful and exceptional in that it allowed voices to be heard as the music paused. The voices blended and contrasted with one another eliciting a powerful emotional response .

The nuns prepare for execution

I spoke Louise and Gerry Franks, long standing opera attendees. It was Gerry Franks' opinion that it was important for this opera to be seen. He felt that it was very unusual, very well done, and that the music fit the subject very well. The way the ending was handled was one of the things he liked best. He also commented favorably on the costuming, lighting staging and singing. I also spoke with Lilette Rohe who is French, attended Catholic school in Paris, and is very familiar with the idea of martyrdom. She thought the production was excellent and noted that the death of the Mother Superior at the end of the first act was extremely well done with very powerful acting.

Mother Superior dying

The Carmelites take their name from Mt. Carmel. They are a very contemplative order that prays seven hours a day. During the French Revolution, in 1789, orders came down to eliminate all religious orders and to begin by confiscating their properties.

Blanche fearful

Dialogues of the Carmelites recounts these occurrences the martyrdom of the nuns of Compiegne (a small town north of Paris) during the French Revolution through the experiences of a fictional, profoundly touching protagonist. She is Blanche de la Force (soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian), a young Parisian aristocrat who is terrified of life in the world she knows. She seeks refuge as a novice in the convent of Compiegne, where she is welcomed by the ailing mother superior, Mme. de Croissy (mezzo-soprano Felicity Palmer) and befriended by the sunny Sister Constance (soprano Anna Christy). Once the mother superior dies, significant tension develops between her successor, Mme. Lidoine (soprano Patricia Racette) and the formidable Mother Marie (mezzo-soprano Jane Irwin/Lyric debut). The cast also includes Blanche's father, the Marquis de la Force (bass-baritone Dale Travis), and her brother, the Chevalier de la Force (Joseph Kaiser).

Blanche joins the other Nuns

Sir Andrew Davis conducts the production originally directed by Robert Carsen, staged at Lyric by Didier Kersten (Lyric debut). The set designer is Michael Levine, costume designer is Falk Bauer (Lyric debut), and Christine Binder creates the lighting based on the original designs by Jean Kalman. Donald Palumbo is chorus master. Phillipe Giraudeau's original choreography is being revived for Lyric by August Tye.

The production is owned by the Netherlands Opera. The Elizabeth Morse Genius Charitable Trust and The Elizabeth Morse Charitable Trust are the generous sponsors of this presentation.

Lyric Opera gratefully acknowledges the support of the W. James and Maxine P. Farrell French Opera Endowed Chair.

Performance dates are: Feb.20, 23, 26, Mar. 2, 5, 9, 14, 17. All performances begin at 7:30 p.m. sharp. SPECIAL NOTE: An hour before each performance (6:30 p.m.) Lyric's dramaturg, Roger Pines, will give a FREE 25-minute lecture and presentation about the opera on the main floor of the Ardis Krainik Theatre. Doors open at 6:15 p.m

See this powerful, unusual production - Dialogues of the Carmelites- Call Lyric Opera of Chicago at 312-332-2244, ext. 5600, or go to www.lyricopera.org  

Photos: Robert Kusel and Dan Rest/ Lyric Opera of Chicago

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