Simply overwhelming

LAWRENCE BUDMEN experiences 'Dialogues des carmélites' at Palm Beach Opera

Francis Poulenc's 1957 opera Dialogues of the Carmelites is one of the true masterpieces of twentieth century music theater. The libretto by Georges Bernanos raises disturbing questions about faith in a troubled world. The story is set in the era of the French Revolution. A group of Carmelite nuns sacrifice themselves at the guillotine rather than give up their faith. At the center of the tale is Blanche de la Force, a young noblewoman who joins the convent to escape from the unstable world around her. In many ways Blanche is a metaphor for the composer, who had to deal with his own crisis of faith and his quest for acceptance in the larger artistic world. Poulenc composed his most deeply personal, haunting score -- music that illuminates both the agony and goodness of his characters. The lyricism and power of this opera are unique. The simplicity of the final scene (as the nuns sing Salve Regina and exit one at a time, the harsh sound of the guillotine in the orchestra) is simply overwhelming. This deeply moving work received a stellar production (seen on 27 February 2004) by the Palm Beach Opera at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, USA.

The classic John Dexter-David Reppa production (from New York's Metropolitan Opera) is filled with unforgettable imagery. From the opening tableaux of the nuns lying prostrate on a crucifix shaped platform through the insular convent scenes, this production (directed here by Max Charruyer) manages to bring remarkable intimacy to an epic story. Dexter's minimalist production concentrates the drama directly on the singers' communicative power. The subtle, darkly beautiful lighting (by Gary Marder) adds atmosphere to the drama.

The soaring beauty of Poulenc's music was given splendid voice by a uniformly excellent cast and an exceptional orchestra and chorus. Julius Rudel conducted eloquently. He has had long experience with this score. Rudel first produced Carmelites in the 1960s at the New York City Opera. In the 1980s he conducted the opera at the Metropolitan (with a cast that included Maria Ewing and Regine Crespin). Rudel coaxed lush string sonorities from his ensemble. He also caught the taut astringency of the mounting tension in the second act. His sense of dramatic momentum and rhythmic urgency was splendid. Superb conducting by one of opera's true veterans! (Rudel is now in his sixth decade on the podium of the world's opera houses.)

Christine Abraham was a radiant Blanche. Her warm, dusky mezzo-soprano soared to impressive heights in the upper range. She suggested both the high strung nervousness and inner strength of the heroine. Kristine Winkler was a touching Sister Constance. Her light soubrette soprano was a joy to hear. She embodied the character's purity and vulnerability while negotiating Poulenc's difficult high lying writing with ease. What dulcet pianissimos she achieved! The great singing actress Judith Forst was a formidable presence as Madame de Croissy, the Old Prioress. Her large, voluminous sound and strongly focused tonal control were impressive. She made the Prioress's death scene truly frightening. Forst made one believe that she was losing not only her life but her mind and her faith. A great performance!

Elizabeth Bishop was a strong, commanding Mother Marie with a firm, impressive mezzo-soprano voice. As Madame Lidoine, the New Prioress, Pamela Kucenic (a soprano with impressive credentials in the Wagner-Strauss repertoire) was riveting! Her bright dramatic soprano held the audience spellbound and her fierce, iron willed portrayal dominated the second half of the evening. Mark Thomsen revealed a lyric tenor of quality and beauty as the Chevalier de la Force, Blanche's brother. His scene with Ms. Abraham was poignant. The deep toned bass of Julian Patrick made the cameo role of the Marquis de la Force into a star turn. As the Father Confessor, Don Frazure sang with fervor -- a fine, light tenor voice. Ashley Howard Wilkinson as an officer and Gordon Longhofer as the Jailer brought fine bass voices to their brief roles. The female chorus sang with great beauty and rich, sonorous sound. Chorus master Kamal Khan had prepared his forces meticulously.

In the almost five decades since its La Scala première, Poulenc's opera has lost none of its power to move and disturb the listener -- a shattering musico-dramatic experience. This score remains a singular achievement -- a unique, one of a kind opera. Virginia Zeani served as an artistic advisor for this production. Madame Zeani (now a Palm Beach resident) had been the original Blanche de la Force at the opera's première. This production was first rate. Great opera presented with moving, powerful immediacy! A world class night for the Palm Beach Opera!

Copyright © 6 March 2004 Lawrence Budmen, Miami Beach, USA

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