BWW Reviews: OTSL's DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES Grandly Rewards Your Patience

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.

I can't imagine better costumes than those designed by Kay Voyce. Of course the nuns are . . . well, nuns. But the clothing of all the others--the nobility, the townspeople, the rabble (those sans culottes) is all deeply authentic, with great variety and beauty. It seems as if these people really live in those clothes.

It's a very fine production. But the opera itself is not without rather strange difficulties:

First and by far the most important is Poulenc's choice to tell the story in series of literal dialogues. That is, exchanges of lines between two characters. "A" sings a solo sentence; "B" sings a solo sentence, "A" responds with a solo sentence, etc. And they are sentences, not lyrics. This gives almost the whole work a sense of being just an evening of recitative. Few in the audience could deny that after a while, despite the beautiful music, the unvarying repetition of this format becomes tedious. Oh, there is an occasional treat for us--Latin liturgical pieces sung by the entire convent. They are gorgeous and ethereal--and we receive them as blessings from heaven. But then it's back to dialogues. There is nary an aria, there's a dearth of duets, and there's not a trace of a trio.

I'm sure that when Stephen Sondheim mentioned to friends that he was composing A Little Night Music entirely in three-quarter time they told him he was crazy. But Sondheim -- that magician -- was able to pull it off. Poulenc's choice to do an opera almost entirely in dialogues posed a quite insurmountable problem. Dialogues are simply too linear to be that interesting.


We all know how it will end -- the nuns are guillotined and Sr. Blanche, who had run away, overcomes her fear; she willingly joins her sisters in martyrdom. This scene is so powerfully written -- and so superbly staged! First we see all of the sisters approach that nearly-white back wall of the set. Each writes her signature in bold onto the sky. (That is such a weepingly beautiful idea!) Then, one by one, singing the "Salve Regina" they slowly approach their deaths. One by one, to the wonderfully murderous sound of the blade descending, their lives are snuffed out, their voices removed from the dwindling chorus. Last in line is our beloved little Constance. But as she steps forward Blanche appears. There is a small confirming touch of hands, then Blanche adds herself to the line and so she is the last to die.

In most productions the nuns ascend steps to an off-stage guillotine. Here the (imagined) guillotine is down-stage center. Each nun approaches it, then . . . CHOP! Thud! Every time there's a startled look of surprise -- but slightly different for each nun. Then she quietly joins her dead sisters on a bench within the box. When Blanch meets the blade her startled look becomes one of relief -- then joy.

It's amazing. Do not forget to bring a handkerchief.

The Dialogues of the Carmelites deals with questions of faith, fear and courage, duty, death and martyrdom, divine destiny. These are addressed subtly, sometimes abstrusely. Poulenc was dedicated to conveying these ideas; he was scrupulously faithful to his source text, using lines from the play instead of real lyrics. In support of these lines he composed most of his music "syllabically"--i.e., one note per syllable. So the musical emphases are based on the French language. And yet Poulenc insisted that the opera be performed in the audience's language; this would explain our occasionally hearing stresses on slightly inappropriate words. Moreover, I'm not at all sure that certain ideas, certain sentiments are not more comfortable in French than in, say, German or English. I'd love to hear this work in French (after improving my French quite a bit).

Pervading this story is the subtle Catholic mystery of the "transference of grace." Sr. Constance suggests that one can die another's death--like being given the wrong coat from the cloakroom. The Old Prioress has said she would exchange her death for that of Blanche; is the horrible death she experiences really intended for Blanche and Blanche's serene death intended for her? Catholics know that Christ died in our stead. Martyrs are dying for . . . for whom? This story is full of "mortal swaps" like this. Mother Marie is eager to lead all the nuns in taking the vow of martyrdom, and yet fate--or God--does not allow her to participate in that martyrdom. The New Prioress did not make that vow, and yet she joins her nuns at the guillotine.

And about that martyrdom vow: a unanimous secret vote is needed for the vow to be in effect. The nuns silently whisper their votes into the ear of their Father Confessor. When it's found that there was one "no" vote everyone assumes it was the fearful Sr. Blanche. But Sr. Constance claims the "no" vote as her own, and now wants to change it to "yes". (The Confessor, of course, may not reveal anything he was told.) Personally I believe that Constance is fibbing in an effort both to recruit Blanche and to save her from the scorn of the others. Constance has always believed that she and Blanche will die together.

And just what is the meaning of that little figurine of Jesus that Blanche accidentally breaks?

It's complex and fascinating. Go armed with all these questions. Go armed with a lot of patience. Go armed with a handkerchief (for that final scene). But most assuredly go--to Opera Theatre of St. Louis' beautiful production of Poulenc's The Dialogues of the Carmelites.

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Steve Callahan A native Kansan I have a BA (Math and Theatre) and MA (Theatre). I was working on a PhD in Theatre when IBM sniffed my math background and lured me away with money enough to feed my (then two) children. Nevertheless I've been active in theatre all my life--having directed fifty-three productions (everything from opera in Poughkeepsie to Mrozek in Woodstock to musical melodrama in Germany) and I've acted in seventy others. Now that I'm retired I don't have that eight-to-five distraction and can focus a bit more. I've regularly reviewed theatre in St. Louis for KDHX since 1991 and am tickled now to also join BWW.