A Meditation on Fear and Mass Hysteria
How the twist of a current event can bring a work alive. Far from being an opera about how faith put to the ultimate test offers a path to redemption, this Dialogues of the Carmelites feels like a difficult meditation on the power of fear, and not just individual psychology of fear but the frenzy of group hysteria. It is a timely and important examination of what can drive people to take part in shedding blood in the name of the apocalypse.
On Saturday, February 21st, a very cold, bedraggled, but dedicated audience of 637 managed to make their way through the snow storm to attend opening night of Washington National Opera’s production, Dialogues of the Carmelites. Directed by Artistic Director Francesca Zambello, the opera represents a first time tackling the work for the WNO and a premiere of the mid-twentieth century opera in the Washington area. Its rarity makes the opera’s story all the more powerfully disturbing.
Francis Poulenc wrote both the libretto and the music for the opera between 1953- 1956 with the atrocities of World War II still very much in people’s consciousness. He took material from a play based on an historical event known as the Martyrs of Compiègne, where in the final days of the French Revolution and only for the crime of not renouncing their faith, sixteen nuns were sent to the guillotine in the Reign of Terror. The final scene of multiple beheadings brings us again to the shocking realization that such fearful things are taking place today.
Fear is everywhere in this work. The opera exposes how individual fears can spark an epidemic. An aristocrat’s young daughter, Blanche, wishes to become a nun to escape her great psychological wound of crippling fear. Her wound might be alternately interpreted as constitutional, sprung from a childhood trauma, or induced partly by her brother whose ministrations seem queasily obsessive if not even incestuous and a father in denial of his daughter’s fragility and the dangerous world around them. But she is not alone in being frightened. No one escapes their fears in a convent, Blanche is told.
Mother Abbess (Madame de Croissy) played magnificently by Dolora Zajick gives us the most dramatic scene in the opera. Her character faces the greatest fear – that at the end of one’s life to feel abandoned by God. Her delirious unmasking of self is both torturous and spellbinding. Zajick’s voice, acting, and sheer presence carry the audience to a higher level of emotional truth than anything in the show.
The opera is taut and harrowing, and several of the singer-actors create fascinating character portraits that haunt us long after the opera’s end. Layla Claire as the young nun Blanche is still growing vocally and emotionally into the role but her work is compelling as her character struggles for freedom in serenity.
Ashley Emerson’s soprano rises exquisitely over the top of the other voices, and her energetic little body seems to explode off the floor with optimistic fervor, but I question whether this little nun is transfixed with Christ energy or is the most deluded and psychologically unpinned nun in seeking a martyr’s death by rationalizing every event and every action taken, as “for the good of God.” (We are all witnesses to how dangerous this kind of thinking can be.)
Leah Crocetto, as the successor to Madame de Croissy, conveys well the “take charge” attitude of a leader and is able to rally the nuns to a “group think” of martyrdom. But I wonder whether her character’s charisma isn’t of a dangerous, narrow-focused kind. Crocetto displayed some tension in her voice opening night, which tended to quaver in a way not to my taste, but her capabilities are strong.
Elizabeth Bishop’s security in the role of Mother Marie comes possibly from her having sung the role in opera houses around the world. Her performance is spot on, and she brings many colors to demonstrate the complexity of her character. She seems the “good soldier” covering for (and covering up) the changed personality of the dying Abbess, then a woman seething with envy – an “Iago” my companion pointed out – when she is overlooked in the passing of leadership. The warmth she can bring vocally is fully realized in the scene where she seeks out Blanche and becomes the compassionate mentor. But does this Mother Marie also succumb to fear, rationalizing even scheming her way out of a martyr’s death?
Alas, the men are less central in this opera, but Alan Held, Robert Baker, James Shaffran and others sing their roles well and demonstrate uncommonly good excellent diction. Their consolation prize must be they keep their heads.
DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES
Closes March 10, 2015
Washington National Opera
at The Kennedy Center Opera House
2700 F Street NW
3 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $25 – $300
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets or call 800.444.1324
The set is stunning. Designer Hildegard Bechtler has created curved metal walls that dominate the stage and close and open as if swallowing people up in their labyrinthian corridors. (A friend reminded me to look at sculptor Sella’s elliptical structures and, sure enough, their spiraling-inward effect evoked the same eerie feeling.) The slow unfolding-refolding movement sets the pace for the entire opera and though occasionally slightly ponderous tending to blur the sharp musical endings of Poulenc’s score, they too have the effect of a kind of meditation.
Great contemporary artworks must have also inspired lighting designer Mark McCullough. In Act 1 he saturates the walls with intense color in such combinations that the stage-world seems to vibrate with a spiritual richness like the meditative paintings of Mark Rothko. In Act II set and lighting grow cooler, and shadows thicken and multiply as the world darkens and moves inexorably to the story’s ghastly end.
Director Zambello suggests with this production we never really escape our fears. She makes use of the corridors that spiral in by creating little cameo “stills” of characters lost in their own fearful aloneness. In this opera, she could have been aided by a choreographer who would have given the same attention to Revolutionaries-as-Chorus as Zambello has given to the stories-in-pictures of the named characters.
The opera and production are neither easy nor flawless. I find the music, which is mostly set in recitative style, to be pensive rather than dramatic. Its difficulty is made more so because the English translation breaks up the phrasing unnaturally and spills forwards with too many words to be singable in passages. It is most gorgeous when the female voices sing in sacred tonalities and in Latin.
Antony Walker leads the WNO orchestra in the score that feels more dramatic than the visible action on stage and would indicate the internal turmoil of the characters. However, on opening night several times the orchestra covered the singers that indicated only that there were problems with balance. When the balance was restored, the whole piece becomes a beautiful requiem.
There are no arias to applaud, and the response opening night was appreciative but subdued. Perhaps this was appropriately so. Dialogues of the Carmelites is no longer a meditation of a late 18th century event from a specific reign of terror but the ghastly specter of the recent innocents beheaded by terrorists who are driven by apocalyptic visions. We are being asked to look at hard things and perhaps face our own fears.
Dialogues of the Carmelites . Music and Libretto by Francis Poulenc . Based on the play by Georges Bernanos . Directed by Francesca Zambello . Conducted by Antony Walker .Featuring Leah Crocetto,
Layla Claire, Dolora Zajick, Elizabeth Bishop, Ashley Emerson, Alan Held, Shawn Mathey and Robert Baker. Set Designer: Hildegard Bechtler . Costume Designer: Claudie Gastine .
Lighting Designer: Mark McCullough . Produced by Washington National Opera . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.