BWW Reviews: OTSL's DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES Grandly Rewards Your Patience
Be patient. Just be patient. It will get glorious.
The Opera Theatre of St. Louis has opened the fourth production in its June festival season--The Dialogues of the Carmelites, by Francis Poulenc. The cast features some St. Louis favorites: Kelly Kaduce, who gave us that jaw-dropping Salome five years ago, now plays a much timider leading lady--Sr. Blanche of the Agony of Jesus. And the wonderful Christine Brewer sings the role of the New Prioress. Miss Brewer first appeared on the OTSL stage some thirty years ago, and, needless to say, a significant thing or two has happened in her career since then. Her last appearance with OTSL was nine years ago, and she is so welcome back! Would that her role here were even larger, but it does give Miss Brewer a chance to display that marvelous voice.
Poulenc's opera (his second of only three) premiered in 1957. It deals with the execution by guillotine of a conventful of Catholic nuns during the French Revolution.
In his youth Poulenc produced outrageous avant garde works in collaboration with Satie, Honegger, Milhaud, and other rebels. They vigorously attacked conventional tonality and harmony. His only previous opera had been a Dada-esque curiosity, The Breasts of Tiresius, based on a play by Apollinaire. So for Poulenc to compose a very serious, tonal, musically conservative work dealing with questions of Catholic faith was, to say the least, unexpected. But he had undergone a profound conversion to Catholicism, and he found this true story compelling.
The story of these nuns had been revived first as a novella, then as a screen-play (the movie was never made), and then as a play by Georges Bernano. Poulenc adapted his libretto from the play. (It still shows its screen-play ancestry in its many short scenes.)
We meet Blanche, a young aristocrat, who is-and has been since birth -- neurotically afraid. She's afraid of death, but she's also afraid of life. She's even afraid of fear. And now, in the chaos of the Revolution, her fears are multiplied. She seeks haven in a convent of the Carmelite order. Kelly Kaduce is such an actress. Her splendid voice perfectly masters Poulenc; at times, in Blanche's hysteria, those highest notes stab through the melody like a bright dagger. But it is Miss Kaduce's acting that most surprises us. With a lean, haunted look, she engages our pity. At times she simply becomes fear. At one point of panic-cringing against a pillar, every fiber trembling-she virtually melts into terror.
Sr. Blanche is befriended by another novice, little Sr. Constance. This is the brightest role in the opera-and amid all the fear, death, and gloom, Constance is a welcome shaft of sunlight. Tiny Ashley Emerson is quite perfect in this role. With a voice as beautiful and pure as a silver flute, and with her innocent happiness and childlike faith and wisdom Miss Emerson instantly gains our love. (We even forgive her . . . we even laugh . . . when she sings, to this gray-haired audience: "When one is fifty-nine or more it's really time for one to die.")
Superb voices abound. Meredith Arwady, as the dying Old Prioress, is fiercely strong. She has a death-scene that makes any other opera death scene look quite placid; it is a horror visited on this good and beloved woman. It is so devastating, so ugly that it's quite discomforting to watch.
Davida Karanas has a warm, rich mezzo voice that serves to give Mother Marie the graceful authority and compassion that this saintly woman requires.
And, of course, Christine Brewer is vocally splendid as the New Prioress. As an actress she gives her character strength, compassion, discipline -- everything this spiritual leader should have.
Men are not entirely absent from the cast. Troy Cook is very strong as the Marquis, Blanche's father. Kyle Erdos-Knapp sings an excellent Father Confessor, and I was particularly impressed by the pure, sweet tenor of Michael Porter as Blanche's brother, the Chevalier. His diction is remarkably clear.
Poulenc's libretto consists of more than a dozen brief scenes, set in almost as many different places--the Marquis' library, various rooms in the convent, places in the street, and finally La Place de la Revolution. Stage director Robin Guarino and set designer Andrew Lieberman very wisely use a single set for all of these. The entire action takes place, if you will, in an open box. It's a large and very beautiful box -- low simple, elegant dark wood panels; slender pillars supporting a sort of open roof; some entrance-ways at the corners. Think of a very large jury-box. It's on a low platform, and it all rotates smoothly to give us different perspectives. Behind is a vast bluish-white sky.
Symbolically such a box is attractive: these are, after all, cloistered women; their lives are in many ways "boxed in". But theatrically the box poses two problems: (1) Those panels, however low, impose a visual barrier between the audience and the performers -- never something to be done casually, and (2) I believe that the box, however open, slightly impairs the acoustics.
But these are very slight drawbacks and that symbol of cloistered-ness may very well be worth it.