Francis Poulenc’s moving depiction of religious faith was telecast today throughout the world straight from the center of Sodom. Poulenc was a major composer who struggled with being thought superficial by deep thinkers like Pierre Boulez. He also was a deeply religious Catholic and a homosexual. He also found time to father a daughter. He along with Benjamin Britten are the only two post World War II composers to have found a regular place in the world’s opera houses.

The Dialogue of the Carmelites is based on the Martyrs of Compiègne. They were 16 nuns of the Carmel of Compiègne. During the French Revolution, they refused to obey the Civil Constitution of the Clergy of the Revolutionary government, which mandated the suppression of their monastery. They were moved to Paris and were guillotined on 17 July 1794. They sang as they each mounted the scaffold as they do in the opera. This concluding scene is moving beyonds words. Each nun walks backstage, disappears into darkness, followed by the thud of the guillotine. This walk of death continues until they’re all gone -a genuine coup de théâtre.

The opera consist mainly of recitatives. But the recitatives are inventive and affecting. No composer now active knows how to write recitatives of this high quality. What melodies there are, are given to the orchestra which interjects more than accompanies. Since I’ve mentioned the band let’s start with Maestro Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s new artistic director. The Canadian conductor looks like one of Santa’s pixies, but he conducts like Apollo. The Met’s splendid players produced a rich and vibrant sound which punctuated with force and grace all of the story’s important moments. The story, by the way, is based on an unfilmed screenplay by Georges Bernanos to whom the Met mistakenly attributes the libretto. It’s by Poulenc. The opera is as much a theatrical as musical experience. An avid opera goer likely would attend a performance of Dialogues two or three times in a lifetime. Once is probably enough for everyone else. Poulenc wanted the opera done in the language of its audience. Accordingly, the work’s world premiere at La Scala was done in Italian. At first the Met did the opera in English. But it has reverted to French in its 21st century stagings. Who cares what the composer wanted?

The cast was uniformly excellent. Unlike the other nun opera in the repertory, Puccini’s Suor Angelica, there are men in the French story. But they are peripheral to the plot. They were performed by competent singers, but this show belongs to the girls. An oddity about the plot – Poulenc was raised and lived as an observant Catholic. So why was there no priest at the Mother Superior’s death bed? She took a long while to die, there was ample time to send for a priest. One shows up in the second act and again in the third. Where was he when he was really needed?

The Finnish soprano Karita Mattila  was the Mother Superior who got the juicy death scene near the end of the first act. She writhed and moaned throughout what morphed into a crisis of faith. A real star turn that she made the most of.

All the female parts are important, but Blanche de la Force is ostensibly the main character. She’s no more than 20 years old. Isabel Leonard is still young enough to look the part, though Video Director Gary Halvorson reverted to his old endoscopic approach to camera work. His in your face photography of the mainly female cast exposed several million dollars worth of botox treatments and cosmetic surgery which probably looked fine to the in-house audience and which would have been equally attractive if Halvarson had kept his cameras no closer than arm’s length.

Back to Leonard, she is a very fine artist who has a lyric mezzo in the mold of Frederica von Stade and Susan Graham. The role of Blanche fits her voice perfectly. Her good looks and fine acting made her portrayal of the depressed young noblewoman wonderfully convincing.

Adrianne Pieczonka and Karen Cargill were the two Mothers who made it past the first act. The former got the Mother Superior job after the Mattila character met her maker. Both were fine and managed to make their characters distinct, no small feat when everyone is about the same age and dressed in the same habit. Erin Morley was also distinctive as the cheery novice Sister Constance. Her singing was as excellent as her acting.

This is an opera worth staging every so often. It has some soporific spots, but not too many. In a world where almost everyone has gone mad, this tribute to faith and belief in the ultimate triumph of good over camp, revolution, and the brittle search for utopia is a welcome restorative. I wonder if the Met and its audience fully understand what the work is really about.



Metropolitan Opera House
May 11, 2019

Francis Poulenc-Georges Bernanos

Blanche de la Force…..Isabel Leonard
Madame de Croissy…….Karita Mattila
Madame Lidoine……….Adrianne Pieczonka
Mother Marie…………Karen Cargill
Sister Constance……..Erin Morley
Mother Jeanne………..Tichina Vaughn
Sister Mathilde………Emily D’Angelo
Marquis de la Force…..Jean-François Lapointe
Chevalier de la Force…David Portillo
Chaplain…………….Tony Stevenson
Thierry……………..Eduardo Valdes
Javelinot……………Paul Corona
First Commissioner……Scott Scully
Second Commissioner…..Richard Bernstein
Jailer………………Patrick Carfizzi
Nuns………………..Elizabeth Brooks, Lianne Coble-Dispensa, Andrea Coleman, Maria D’Amato,
Sara Heaton, Mary Hughes, Kate Mangiameli, Ashley Mason, Elizabeth Sciblo, Rosalie Sullivan
Meredith Woodend

Conductor……………Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Production…………..John Dexter
Stage Director……….David Kneuss
Set Designer…………David Reppa
Costume Designer……..Jane Greenwood
Lighting Designer…….Gil Wechsler
Stage Director……….David Kneuss
Video Director………. Gary Halvorson