BWW Reviews: Poulenc's DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES is Timely, Compelling, at Aurora Chamber Opera Series

BWW Reviews: Poulenc's DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES is Timely, Compelling, at Aurora Chamber Opera Series

A good idea, carried too far, is invariably a horrendous idea. Liberty, equality, and fraternity were preached by the French revolutionaries, but what resulted was a Seine of blood flowing from the guillotines. It is in this setting that Francis Poulenc put the nuns in his 1956 opera, DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES. But ideological mass murder was nothing new then, nor has it ceased its existence since the French Revolution. Though it is based on the true story of the Martyrs of Compiegne, the story still resonates through modern history as well. Poulenc was writing immediately after World War II and at the time of the increase in Communism in eastern Europe, so pertinent examples of the same thing were immediately at hand and, no doubt, in mind.

With these examples so readily available, Poulenc and his lyricist Georges Bernanos had no difficulty finding inspiration beyond their source material, and audiences have no difficulty relating the nuns' story to even very recent news. Thus a modern setting is utterly appropriate for the tale, despite its eighteenth-century reality. In that sense, the recent Curtis Opera Theatre production of DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES at the Perelman Theater, with Opera Philadelphia, was set and costumed entirely properly - plastic molded chairs in the convent, sports jackets on the revolutionaries, and the nuns, forced out of their habits, dressed in skirts and blouses. On the other hand, one may ask what the costume designer and staff were thinking on putting the characters at the opening in period eighteenth-century dress when even in the next act two of those same characters - Blanche and the chevalier - would be in modern dress.

Aside from costume issues, the staging of the production was not particularly problematic, even as modern-minimalist. And the orchestra, conducted by Corrado Rovaris of Opera Philadelphia, was splendid, as was some singularly tight direction on stage by Jordan Fein.

But the issue, of course, is the nuns, and in this production, several were outstanding. Not the least of them is the young novice, Sister Constance, sung by Sarah Shafer, who was notable as a delightful Papagena in last season's Opera Philadelphia production of THE MAGIC FLUTE. She and Blanche, sung by Rachel Sterrenberg, had a lovely joint moment, not quite a duet, at the beginning of the second act. Shir Rozzen is also noteworthy as the dying Reverend Mother, Mme. De Croissy, with a richly expressive mezzo and some fine acting skills. Her mania prior to her death was beautifully staged and acted, and Rozzen deserves serious credit for her performance.

Sterrenberg herself shows some fine acting skills as well as the doubtful and confused Blanche, who hoped to find a place to hide in the convent, but found that the convent, as well as life as a member of a noble house in France, were equally deadly. Her scene arriving at her father's home to find him dead and the servants ruling the roost was nicely done, as was her performance in the closing scene.

The nuns as an ensemble deliver three songs that are among Poulenc's finest compositions - his "Ave Maria" and his "Ave verum corpus", both a cappella, and, in the final scene, as the nuns go to the scaffold one by one, his "Salve Regina."

Also worthy is Jamez McCorkle as the nuns' chaplain, a priest ordered by the state to give up celebrating the Mass, who chooses to cast his lot in with the sisters, who agree to hide him. Roy Hage as the Chevalier, Blanche's brother, has a nice turn, even though the confrontation with Blanche when he comes to the convent to tell her of his plans to flee felt awkward... as no doubt Poulenc intended.

The previously-mentioned set design made excellent use of shadow, a fine idea when in the midst of a show that is centered in illusion and misrepresentation - of Blanche's feelings, of the need to hide from the revolutionaries, of the Revolution's understanding of its own nature. A shadow hangs over the entire story, in fact, because it is the story of so many groups who have been killed merely for the crime of existing when the state decides they should not.

The production was part of the Aurora Series for Chamber Opera at the Perelman. For more information about Curtis Opera Theatre, visit their page at www.curtis.edu. For more information on Opera Philadelphia, visit their webpage at www.operaphila.org.

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From This Author Marakay Rogers

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