Composer/Librettist: Francis Poulenc
Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Seguin
Producer/Director: John Dexter
Isabel Leonard: Blanche de la Force
Karita Mattila: Madame de Croissy
Erin Morley: Sister Constance
Karen Cargill: Mother Marie
Adrianne Pieczonka: Madame Lidoine
David Portillo: Chevalier de la Force
Jean-François Lapointe: Marquis de la Force
Of all the operas on my bucket list, Francis Poulenc’s 1954 Dialogues des Carmélites had been right up there for a while, especially since I had missed my chance at the Met back in 2013 and was left seething about it for a long time. A few years ago, I in fact got so desperate that I seriously considered a quick trip to D.C. just for it as it was playing at the Washington National Opera… until I realized that it was sung in English and recoiled in horror.
But my patience was eventually rewarded this year, when the Met was kind enough to grant us three performances of the much acclaimed John Dexter production, the one and only production that has ever graced its prestigious stage because why fix it if it ain’t broken. This time again, it would boast a promising cast, and this time again, it was scheduled right at the end of the season, almost like an after-thought, when it has clearly been a winner in the past. Go figure.
But then again, all I needed was one performance that fit my schedule, and I quickly rushed to buy a ticket when I found one. From a quick look around me last Wednesday night, I was not the only one who did it as the cavernous opera house was packed to the brim with audience members evidently looking forward to partaking in a devastating tale of faith and martyrdom during the French revolution on a beautiful spring night.
It is true than on paper Dialogues des Carmélites is not necessarily an easy sell. Inspired by the story of the Martyrs of Compiègne, which were 16 nuns sent to the guillotine in 1794, the opera weights heavy issues in an austere setting. On the other hand, as if to add a bit of unexpected and colorful drama to our evening, there was a bit of a scuffle in the Family Circle right after the performance had started. It was later determined that an audience member was apparently busy dealing with customer service on speakerphone and would not shut up until an usher armed with two flashlights and the necessary authority finally put an end to it after a few eternal minutes.
Meanwhile, the performance was going on and Isabel Leonard soon appeared as young aristocrat Blanche de la Force, fresh from a startling encounter with rowdy revolutionary forces and announcing that she had decided to take holy orders. Seemingly eager for yet another daunting challenge to conclude a brilliant season that included Marnie and Palléas et Mélisande, the young American soprano reprised the difficult part with force and finesse. She was most impressive at expressing all the subtle nuances implied in a constant vacillating between her uncontrollable fear of a new life and the unbreakable faith that kept her going. It was unquestionably a glorious home run.
Isabel Leonard may have gotten top-billing as anxious yet strong-minded Blanche, but according to my personal and totally unscientific assessment, unstoppable Finnish soprano Karita Mattila handily stole the show as the prioress Madame de Croissy, and in just a single act too since she was eventually and mercilessly brought down by a particularly scenery-chewing death scene. Combining her celebrated voice with her magnetic presence, she was downright mesmerizing as she was erratically raising doubts about God in the darkest moments of her life without losing any of her uncompromising harshness.
The three other female leads were all equally successful in their own way: American soprano Erin Morley was an endearingly innocent and bubbly Constance, Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill was a kind and fiercely devoted Mother Marie, and Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka was the level-headed and steady new prioress, Madame Lidoine. Never to be outdone, the women of the Met chorus sang with fierce commitment.
In this woman-centric world, two male characters had a say, both coming from Blanche’s family and both caring deeply about the troubled young woman. Her father, the Marquis de la Pointe, winningly impersonated by robust Canadian baritone Jean-François Lapointe in his Met debut, and her brother, the Chevalier de la Force, sweetly but convincingly sung by young American tenor David Portillo, were peripheral roles, but they were nevertheless fulfilled with much substance.
Such an extraordinarily cast was worthy of an extraordinarily production, and luckily, we had one on Wednesday night. The first tableau, which consisted of several nuns lying in Christ-like position across a huge white cross surrounding by blackness, was nothing short of arresting. Not only spectacular in its unfussiness and effectiveness, this opening image also cleverly symbolized the stark contrast between darkness and light that was at the core of the opera. My only fear was that things could only go down from there, but not at all. The set-up would cleverly remain until the end, only slightly modified with carefully selected props at times to discreetly enhance the scene at hand.
As much as the cast and production mightily contributed to the all-around success of this Dialogues des Carmélites, none of it would have been possible without Poulenc’s exceptional score to begin with. And if the music sounded straightforwardly tonal and simple at first, it did not take long for the attentive listener to detect a constant underlying tension as well as myriads of tiny details that emphasize the spiritual elevation of faith, the blood-thirsty fever of the Revolution, and the gut-wrenching agony of doubt.
An exceptional score deserves an exceptional orchestra conducted by an exceptional maestro, and they were all there on Wednesday night. Concluding his very promising first season as the new Met music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin drew superb music from the ever-reliable Met orchestra, keeping pace and intensity in check so that every single nuance of the drama could be felt. Add to that a confident shaping of the music to seamlessly fit the particular rhythm of the French language, and we all got to enjoy another technically brilliant and emotionally gripping performance.
As the evening was advancing, I could feel that the cold I had been nursing all day was slowly but surely taking a hold on me. So I strategically decided to save as much energy as I could for the last but reputedly most powerful scene of them all, the “Salve Regina” prayer. And powerful it was, as the chorus was losing one voice after the other every time a nun walked to the unseen guillotine and disappeared behind the black curtain in the back of the stage accompanied by a pretty realistic (I guess) blade falling thud. The opera, like the Met, had saved the best for the end, and it was bloody awesome.