Poulenc Dialogue des Carmélites – Metropolitan Opera, New York
***** (5 stars)
Take a simple story – a convent of Carmelite nuns caught up in the French Revolution is first disbanded and then, as the women continue to meet and pray together, they are imprisoned and all sentenced to the guillotine. Add intense music by Poulenc, who himself returned to the Catholic Church in the 1930s, give it to a magnificent cast of singers, all individual voices and personalities, and stage it so that the action takes place on a spotlit cruciform area of the huge Met stage, and the effect is breathtakingly moving.
The action centres around the innately fearful, hypersensitive Blanche, daughter of the Chevalier de la Force, and sister to the Marquis. She seems constantly to live in terror, frightened of shadows and inherently unhappy in her father’s house. She tells her father she wishes to enter the Carmelite convent and reluctantly he agrees. Once there, Blanche is shocked by the simple, happy faith of fellow-novice Constance [aptly named, it transpires], who tells her that they are destined to die together, and soon. Constance is not afraid of death, but prioress Madame de Croissy is finding her own imminent death prolonged and so painful she cannot think of God. Mother Marie is shocked to hear this, but gladly accepts her superior’s instruction that she take special care of Blanche, who kneels in tears at the prioress’ bedside. Constance wonders whether God got it wrong – that the prioress wasn’t meant to find death so hard: maybe someone else will find their own death surprisingly easy.
Madame Lidoine is appointed the new prioress, rather than Mother Marie. Blanche’s brother comes to urge her to go back to her father’s house: it is a painful meeting, as she is convinced her duty lies in the convent, with her sisters. The Revolutionary forces, having relieved the priest of his duties and banished him, expel the nuns from the convent and warn them that they must not gather nor pray together. The nuns decide to take a mutual vow of martyrdom, but Blanche runs away without taking it. Mother Marie finds her at her father’s chateau, and offers her the address of a safe house to go to. The other nuns are taken to prison and then sentenced to death. Surrounded by the Parisian mob, one by one the women go, singing a hymn, to face the guillotine. Its swish and thud is heard again and again as the number of singers diminishes: at last only Constance remains. Suddenly Blanche steps out from the crowd and embraces her: they will indeed die together.
The Met stage is huge, and this opera is mostly very small-scale: the intimacy of the encounters was beautifully confined within the cruciform acting area, into which dropped simple structures – the wall of the Chevalier’s house, the grille that separates the enclosed nuns from the visitor and the prison bars enclosing the nuns during their final night on earth.
It’s a meditation on death and fear and courage – the courage that can transcend the fear of death; and on faith – Constance’s deep and simple trust in her loving God, the prioress’s agonised absence of faith, Madame Marie’s almost fanatical faith, Madame Lidoine’s simpler, serene trust, and Blanche’s desperate search for a secure faith that only comes to her in her final moments as she faces up to and rises above her fear. Regardless of whether or not you believe in God, it’s impossible not to be moved by the final movements of this opera, and impressed by the staggering range of talent on display at the Met.
David Portillo’s aristocratic and unbending Chevalier was in strong contrast to his beautifully-voiced, sensitive son [Jean-Francois Lapointe – no wonder his French was so good!]. Though Karita Mattila’s prioress died quite early on, the intensity of her deathbed agonies, both physical and spiritual, was deeply harrowing. Glaswegian Karen Cargill’s Mother Marie was firm in her faith, her aristocratic background keeping her spine erect no matter what challenges she faced. Adrianne Pieczonka’s Madame Lidoine, solidly grounded by her ‘country’, non-aristocratic background was brilliant, proudly standing above and protecting the nuns in her charge, and the first to walk to embrace death. Erin Morley’s Constance was young, innocent and radiantly joyful as she spoke trustingly of the messages she received from God. Isobel Leonard’s inner struggles were utterly convincing and deeply moving – she richly deserved the applause which brought the Met audience to their feet at the final curtain.
Poulenc Dialogue des Carmélites – Metropolitan Opera, New York, Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh via Live Relay.