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The black box theater of the Morrison Playhouse at Brevard College’s Porter Center for the Performing Arts is an intimate and somewhat unusual venue in which to experience opera, especially grand opera as it has been reformulated by Patrick Hansen, Associate Director of the Janiec Opera Company and Director of this production. Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites begs for large spaces, grandiose spectacle, and massive performing forces to match the weighty drama (based on historical accounts) which unfolds inexorably before our eyes, and this is the way it is usually staged. Hansen, however, has a different take on the piece, opting instead for a close-up look at a tragic moment in time when a profound shift in world order would have devastating consequences for individual human beings. Hansen doubles also as pianist, vocal coach and conductor. The production is sung in English, one of three languages in which the opera premiered in 1957.
Poulenc worked on the opera between 1953 and 1955. He also wrote the libretto using several sources — the play Dialogues of the Carmelites by George Bernanos (1948), a screenplay by Emmet Lavery, and the novel Die Letzte am Schafott (1931) by Gertrud von le Fort. The inspiration for the story was the actual arrest and execution during France’s Reign of Terror of the sixteen Carmelite nuns — the so-called “Martyrs of Compiègne” — attached to the Carmelite monastery. As they approached the guillotine on July 17, 1794, they sang the medieval hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus.”
The opera is considered to be Poulenc’s masterpiece, an outgrowth of his spiritual reawakening begun in the 1930s. It places extreme demands on the singers, for there are no catchy tunes, no formulaic phrases, no showy melismas or roulades which is the very stuff of opera, no repeated text of any kind. In lieu of this is a steady recitative, a declamatory style of singing which encompasses wide leaps and register shifts. The challenges to memorize, much less master, each part must be extraordinary. The musical interest lies largely in the isolated moments of choral singing, (in Latin to reference the church’s sacred musical tradition) and in the orchestral music which encapsulates and replays the major themes of heroism, contemplation, and death. It was gratifying to observe the depth of emotional involvement of the cast, and there were many fine moments — the death scene of the aging Prioress at the end of Act I, Sister Constantine’s radiance and self-assurance, a foil to Blanche’s turmoil and self-doubt, and, of course, the final scene of martyrdom in which the nuns sing the “Salve Regina” and, one by one, walk past the audience toward a bright light and eternity.
For the listener the demands are there as well — to listen to an opera predicated on conversation (i.e., dialogue) which hinges on emotional reflection rather than the actions/reactions of the characters. Even when the language sung is our own, the concentration required to catch the words is pretty great, and in any production, one hears singers who are more adept at clear declamation than others (most of the men were amazingly easy to hear). Wide vibratos, straining to sing notes in the stratosphere, individual vocal timbres, and backs turned to the audience were some factors compromising the audibility of the text.
Hansen’s experiments with the opera extended to the sets which consisted mainly of easily movable props, and to his brilliant idea to use the chorus of nuns (which he kept onstage and immobile) to symbolize variously the walls and doorways of the church, and even tombstones in the churchyard. Hansen said that in doing so, the people literally became the church, as they were meant to be. Hansen plays a mean piano, and does it for two and a half hours, but I missed the orchestral colors which add so much depth to any production.
The cast consisted of Blanche (Anne Claire Niver), daughter to the Marquis de la Force (Trevor A. Martin) and sister of The Chevalier, his son (Brian S. Wallin). Members of the convent were Sister Constance, a young nun (Elise Marie Kennedy), Mme. De Croissy, Prioress (Marisa Ortiz), Mme. Lidoine, the new Prioress (Katie Abraham), Mother Marie, assistant Prioress (Tara Curtis), Mother Jeane, Dean (Melissa Fajardo), and Sister Mathilde (Megan Mikailovna Samarin). Several of the leading roles are double cast.
Supporting roles were the Jailor (Trevor A. Martin), Father Confessor of the Convent (Jason Weisinger), M. Javelinot, a doctor (Nicholas Davis), 1st Commissioner (Gary McLinn), 2nd Commissioner (Patrick ZurSchmeide), 1st Officer (Makoto Winkler), and Thiery, Valet to the Marquis (James Eder).
Production staff were Kelley Finn (lighting), Necole E. Bluhm (wigs and make-up), and Heather Mallory (sound). Costumes were courtesy of the University of Cincinnati, College Conservatory of Music and coordinated by Glenn Avery Breed.