BWW Review: DIALOGUES DES CARMELITES at Sarasota Opera House
Francis Poulenc's opera, Dialogues des Carmélites, is a blistering portraying of the martyrdom of several Carmelite nuns living in Paris who were guillotined for not renouncing their faith during the French Revolution. Although the opera is a fictionalized account of an actual event, the depth by with it was written and the intimate scenes in which we are invited to partake, make this horrific story a very personal experience.
At the center of this three act drama is a young and overwrought with fear, Blanche de la Force, (Sandra Lopez). Blanche decides to leave home where she resides with her father, Marquis de la Force, (Young Bok Kim), and her brother Chevalier de la Force, (Sean Christensen), and enters the Carmelite monastery of nuns hoping it will be a safe retreat from the madness of her present world. Her introduction into the Order is a stern assertion from the Mother Superior, (Lisa Chavez), declaring it is the nuns who protect the Order and not the other way around.
Within the monastery Blanche encounters sisters from various walks of life whose tolerance, temperament and opinions add color to the drab overshadowing of war. A ray of light, who may be a bit too exuberant, is young Sister Constance, (Claire Coolen), whose idealistic view of the world is far from reality. Blanche witnesses the death of the elder Prioress that, to Blanche's bewilderment, declares God has forsaken her. Before she passes, she leaves Blanche in the charge of Mother Marie, (Olivia Vote). When the new Prioress, Madame Lidoine, (Michelle Johnson), takes over, she reminds the Order of their commitment to stay focused on prayer, even to the point of martyrdom.
Before leaving the country, Blanche's brother visits with her to try and convince his sister to leave the Order, but she refuses. Soon authorities arrive telling the nuns they have to leave the convent. At one point Blanche is entrusted with a statue of Jesus to give to Madame Lidoine as encouragement before her trip to Paris. Hearing an angry mob outside the convent, and overcome with fear, Blanche drops the statue with a crack that jolts the audience. Not knowing what the future holds, as the nuns prepare to leave the convent, they put off their habits and take a vow of martyrdom.<
By an odd twist of events, Blanche ends up in the remnants of the father's home where she becomes a servant. Although her brother has left the country and her father was beheaded, she somehow feels safe in the ruins of her family's old home. Mother Marie comes for Blanche asking that she reconnect with the other nuns. She is hesitant.
In Blanche's absence, the nuns end up in prison and were handed a death sentence by guillotine. One by one they are led to the gallows. We see them walk up the stairs leading to the unseen guillotine offstage: the end of the their lives at hand, and the beginning of their martyrdom. Each one walks with grace and dignity, unwavering in their faith to the end. Sister Constance is the last in line until she sees Blanche line up behind her at the last minute. Blanche's name was not on the list of nuns to be executed but in the end, she followed her sisters. On that day, the most fearful nun of all became the most brave.
The entire cast is superb, brining this very tragic story to life. Ms. Lopez as Blanche was believably nervous and fragile. Ms. Coolen as Sister Constance brought welcomed levity to her character. The songs throughout the opera were dramatic and sung with such passion. The guillotine's sound of steel slicing through the air, ending in a thump, was realistically painful to sit through over and over as each nun went to her death. Conductor David Neely skillfully managed the accomplished Sarasota Opera Orchestra through many beautiful pieces, smoothly orchestrating in and around choppy scene breaks. Director Martha Collins provided excellent direction allowing her performers the license to embody their characters within the confines of who they were within the story.
This is not an easy production to present nor is it easy to watch without questioning one's own faith and convictions. When facing the gallows, the reality of strength and conviction is the highlight of this opera and also its saddest moment. It is an opera that doesn't come around much and one that deserves to be seen.
Dialogues des Carmélites runs through March 24, 2017, at the Sarasota Opera House.