Review of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Dialogue des Carmélites

The Mets dialog box of Carmelites. Courtesy of Metropolitan Opera

The Metropolitan Opera presented a star-studded cast of female voices in their revival of the now classic John Dexter production of Dialogue of the Carmelites on January 15.

Dexter’s staging, now approaching its fiftieth year of production, has hardly aged; the visuals remain sober and striking: powerfully minimal in contrast to yours truly and under-furnished. The iconic opening image of the nuns lying on the ground in a cross of light still evokes a strange gasp here and there.

Under the unwaveringly cold lighting, the stage is often separated by screens or prison bars: walls that divide in a meaningful way while maintaining visibility, both visually transparent and functionally opaque. When they divide Blanche and her brother, they seem to represent his limited – but not entirely wrong – perception of her. They can see each other, but they cannot reach each other. I also read them as something of the invisible but insurmountable chasm between human understanding and divine mystery, between which faith is the only but imperfect bridge. When these sets came in today, I came to see them as evocative of the offstage guillotines heard (but never seen) in the opera’s final scene, a testament to the perpetual scope for interpretation of a well-thought-out production and of a complex and powerful opera text.

Carmelites is loved not only for his music, which is by turns naturalistic, mystical and dramatic, but also for his profound philosophical and religious exploration of the nature of fear and devotion. I can think of no other opera in the standard repertoire that presents such nuanced and individual portraits of five key female characters, much less used to ponder big questions about faith: the human motivations that drive us towards it. and running from it, its purpose and power in an increasingly secular world, and its purpose of martyrdom as the ultimate expression of faith.

Poulenc is admiring but clear-eyed in his research, ensuring that his characters retain their individuality and humanity rather than falling into allegory. Characters doubt in different ways, each true to its own personality. In other words, it is a real ensemble piece and this cast fit well together as well as with the music. Each singer was both vocally and dramatically different, enhancing the realism of Poulenc’s characterizations and working together to make these martyrs feel human and fallible, even in their bravery.

As central Blanche de la Force, Ailyn Pérez was vocally capable, but dramatically uneven. In this performance, Blanche’s embarrassment felt more paranoid and jumpy, her reactions exaggerated and slightly delayed. There was some laughter as she dropped the Christ Child figurine, the intended mischief derailing into slapstick. Although she was vocally strong in the first act, especially in the scenes with Madame de Croissy and her short duet with Constance, in the second half she fluctuated between an almost inaudible whisper pianissimo or a near scream.

However, she well captured Blanche’s simultaneous desire to escape and create an identity away from her father and brother (and the terrifying world she misunderstands and misunderstands) and for a renunciation of that same self-determination through the obedience demanded by the Carmelites. It is the great irony of Blanche’s psychological journey (and testament to the complexity of Poulenc’s libretto) that her final moment of self-determination is also self-destruction. Blanche’s ending, when she joins her sisters in martyrdom, is undoubtedly heroic and courageous – and was played correctly as such – but it’s also complicated by the preceding scene between the sacristan and Mére Marie, who is devastated when she it is reminded that the pursuit of martyrdom is subversion. of God’s will.

Blanche is surrounded by a collection of women who struggle in different but equally powerful ways to untangle the threads of their own desires and fears with the will of God as they respond and interpret the world around them.

Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, as Mother Superior Madame de Croissy, trembled with dark intensity from the moment she took the stage. Her face and body contorted, ravaged by discomfort rising to pain, this was an utterly vanityless acting show for Coote, paired with an intense and compelling vocal performance that wasn’t afraid to dig into the meaner side of the Croissy. I found her moving intensely in her anger and pain.

Sabine Devieihle, making her Met debut, was radiant as Constance, convent chatterbox and Blanche’s constant counterpart. Her voice has a pure, sweet quality that belies a wealth of power and presence that made the fickle young nun more grounded and even more sympathetic than usual. Searching for Blanche as she climbed the scaffold, Devieihle’s Constance appears to shrink back into herself, looking around in what is her own test of faith, before expanding in a burst of joy as Blanch rushes in.

Another vocal highlight in an evening with generally very strong singing was Christine Goerke as Madame Lidoine, Mother Superior after Madame de Croissy. This performance was a compelling case for giving Goerke a slightly lighter repertoire than the Met has recently given her; freed from the shackles of something like Turandot, which she sings with tremendous power but not always with beauty, the soprano was able to unleash a luscious and generous stream of sound that flowed with unhurried force, more like a waterfall than a muscle car. She also looked radiantly beautiful, radiating calmness and warmth, and her eyes glittered from under her habit.

Jamie Barton delivered a finely drawn and affectionate performance as Mére Marie, which she leaned with a stentorian power and zealous fire, cut with a touch of instability and dread. Her ardent and somewhat unsettling desire for martyrdom, her thinly veiled jealousy of Madame Lidoine after she was passed over for the role of Mother Superior, along with the tension between her vow of obedience in watching over Blanche and her unwillingness to put up with the attacks of the younger woman to be jittery, all combined with Barton’s expansive and steely voice made Marie a fascinating character indeed. Her touching scene with the priest revealed a stunning combination of love, devotion and envy.

There are also a few men in the opera, with newcomer Piotr Buszewski and veteran Laurent Naouri as the Chevalier and Marquis de la Force respectively. Both were hemmed in by the talkativeness of their opening sequence, which doesn’t allow for much lyrical singing, but Naouri ripped out as much as he could with his hard-hitting baritone. Buszewski shone brighter in his scene with Blanche in the convent, finally able to slow down and reveal a smooth and robust tenor.

On stage, the Billy was at his sharpest in steering the fast-paced moments, which buzzed with realistic dramatic tension. Sometimes, however, these scenes flew by too quickly to get much beauty from the singers, who had to process huge mouthfuls of text. Poulenc’s score, which can be both compact and naked at the same time, presented some volume challenges throughout, with the Billy sometimes unable to voice his singers above the orchestra. In the final scene, the Billy held the reins tighter, letting Poulenc’s mighty conceit speak for itself as each nun’s “Salve Regina” was silenced with the guillotine, one by one.

Review: 'Carmélites' is a nuanced meditation on fear and commitment

Review of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Dialogue des Carmélites

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