Conductor: Michele Mariotti
Director: Emma Dante
Corinne Winters: Blanche de la Force
Anna Caterina Antonacci: Madame de Croissy
Emöke Baráth: Sister Constance
Ekaterina Gubanova: Mother Marie
Ewa Vesin: Madame Lidoine
Jean-François Lapointe: Marquis de la Force
Bogdan Volkov: Chevalier de la Force
Leaving New York City was bitter-sweet for many reasons, and one of them was its pre-pandemic endless supply of first-class music performances, which have, as far as I can tell, returned, but which I can no longer enjoy. Although it would be delusional to expect the same kind of abundance anywhere else, at least this past weekend reminded of my music-filled New York years when after a chamber music concert on Saturday afternoon, I attended an opera performance on Sunday evening.
As I was eagerly checking the 2022-2023 season of the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma earlier this year, the one title that immediately jumped at me was Dialogues des Carmélites, Francis Poulenc’s originally polemical version of the story of the Martyrs of Compiègne, the group of 16 Carmelite nuns who, as the Reign of Terror was about to end in 1794, died on the guillotine for refusing to renounce their faith. So I went.
The walk to the opera house was uneventful, but once I got there, I quickly noticed beautiful people and VIPs walking the red carpet and air kissing one another, and realized that the performance would be not only the opening night of the Dialogues des Carmélites’ run, but also the opening night of the new opera season. So I discreetly sneaked up to my upper level first-row seat, which had come with a high price tag and turned out to have a slightly obstructed view. Seriously.
But it took more than an admittedly fancy bar between me and the stage to tamper my excitement, and I started chit-chatting with the very friendly Milanese opera buff next to me as we were both watching the space filling up slowly (Northern Italians definitely know how to keep an eye on the clock). And then, 10 minutes after the official start time, and after a moment of silence requested by the general manager for the victims of the landslide on Ischia, the show finally got underway.
A convent is by default a place of humility and self-effacement, and in that sense, the entire cast delivered uniformly superb performances. As Blanche de la Force, who would later become Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ, American soprano Corinne Winters put her wide-ranging singing and acting skills to valuable use as the constantly fearful, endearingly impressionable, and yet surprisingly strong, young woman who, one day, decides to leave the real world’s turmoil behind and enter a Carmelite convent. Needless to say, her life will never be the same.
As the first step, she will have to interview with the aging and ailing prioress of the monastery, Madame de Croissy, whom veteran Italian soprano and mezzo-soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci channeled magnificently. Although she disappeared early, her visceral death scene remained one of the major highlights of the production. A singer as well as an actress blessed with infinite intelligence and bottomless resilience, not to mention a magnetic presence, she magisterially expressed the terror and doubt overwhelming her character in her last moments.
Hungarian mezzo-soprano Emöke Baráth was a delightful Sister Constance, the ever-spontaneous chatter-box who will eventually join her sisters in their fate. Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova, an old acquaintance from The Met’s, was an intrinsically kind Mother Marie. Polish soprano Ewa Vesin made her mark as the eventually heroic new prioress Madame Lidoine.
The male parts are few and far between in this opera, but French bass Jean-François Laponte and Ukrainian tenor Bogdan Volkov did commendable work as, respectively, Blanche’s father and brother. Additionally, how could one forget Volkov and Winters’ genuinely heart-breaking duet as he’s trying to persuade her to return home?
Regardless of the prodigious singing talents assembled, the name that I will probably remember most from these Dialogues des Carmélites is Emma Dante, the fearless Italian playwright, theatre director and stage actress who managed to come up with a production that adroitly incorporates secular and feminist bits to the proceedings, on top of being delightfully creative.
The many inspired visual elements included sliding panels with Moorish-like design that were both stylish and versatile, a recurring huge cross dramatically swinging like a pendulum in the background, the sisters crushing the novices’ feet with heavy blocks to ply them, and the huge portraits of the pre-convent nuns that would accompany the women as the empty frames turned first into a prison, then into symbols of their death when, in the final scene, each nun signed herself one last time inside her own frame before a guillotine blow triggered the dropping of a white canvas that would obliterate her.
Other tableaux featured lighter but equally inventive touches, such as the entertaining choreography of the group of nuns ironing sheets in unison, a set consisting mostly of shelves of skulls that looked straight out of Rome’s chiesa dei Cappuccini, and the surreal image of the nuns riding yellow bicycles in long leather coats, making the most of their first and last moment of intoxicating freedom. The eye-popping costumes—The nuns’ early futuristic outfits could have easily come from a modern-day fashion runway—proved that colors and originality are not antonyms of austerity.
But the whole enterprise started with Poulenc’s uniquely complex, relentlessly challenging score, in which a wide-range of influences such as catholicism, impressionism, revolutionary brutality, and aristocratic refinement can be detected. As a side note, I find it interesting that Poulenc allegedly went to great lengths to come up with lyrics that would make vocal lines sound almost conversational, because it makes me wonder, in passing, how well the opera’s Italian and English versions work.
On Sunday evening, maestro Michele Mariotti, who was fulfilling there his first engagement as the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma’s new music director, made sure to keep words and music admirably flowing together, while also properly emphasizing the loudness of the political unrest or the intimacy of Blanche’s shifting emotions. The orchestra did an excellent job at following his directions, but the last word, or note, had to be left to the all-women chorus, who was simply outstanding in the terrifying and terrific Salve Regina, their chanting being regularly interspersed with the sound of the guillotine’s blade falling until everyone had bit the dust. And there was nothing else to add.