Review: Exquisitely Subtle CARMELITES Makes Another of Its Brief Stops at the Met

Stellar Casting Abounds, with Barton, Coote, Goerke and Perez in Top Form

By: Jan. 20, 2023
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Review: Exquisitely Subtle CARMELITES Makes Another of Its Brief Stops at the Met
Act 1. Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera

"I am working like a madman, I do not go out, I do not see anyone," said Francis Poulenc shortly after beginning work on DIALOGUES DES CARMELITES, as quoted in the Met's program. "I do not want to think of anything else...I am crazy about my subject, to the point of believing I have actually known these women."

True, he has certainly written as if he knew the characters he's written about, but as for his allusions to being like a madman, that certainly doesn't come across. CARMELITES is as elegant and eloquent as anything in the operatic canon, giving no hint of what the composer/librettist's inner turmoil might have been like.

I've heard the opera a number of times at the Met over the years and this year's run holds up with the most breathtaking of them. Despite the number of star performances among the magnificent ensemble currently being heard at the Met, the star of the show doesn't have a single word to say or note to sing.

Review: Exquisitely Subtle CARMELITES Makes Another of Its Brief Stops at the Met
Perez. Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera

No, it's not the composer's libretto, fashioned from the play of the same name by George Bernanos, though it is an achievement of its own (even if two thirds of the text was jettisoned by Poulenc) or his wondrous score. Nor is it the fine performance of the Met orchestra under conductor Bertrand de Billy or the chorus under Donald Palumbo.

It is David Reppa's simple yet elegant--timeless--setting in John Dexter's production, with original lighting by Gil Wechsler and costumes (not everything is a nun's habit) by Jane Greenwood, marshalled this time around by Sarah Ina Meyers. Dating back to 1977, the set hardly shows its age; in fact, it couldn't seem more timely than if the French Revolution was once again in the air. (Hmm, come to think of it...)

Review: Exquisitely Subtle CARMELITES Makes Another of Its Brief Stops at the Met
Goerke. Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera

Despite my enthusiasm for the framework of this fictionalized version of an order of Carmelite nuns who take a vow of martyrdom, during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution, the cast was grand. The cast of singing actors brought out every nuance, every fear, every bit of spirituality in the piece.

There are larger, more prominent roles than that of the old nun, Madame de Croissy, the dying Mother Superior of the order, but none has her impact in a brilliantly written death scene that is simply harrowing.

Review: Exquisitely Subtle CARMELITES Makes Another of Its Brief Stops at the Met
Coote, Barton. Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera

Mezzo Alice Coote pulled out all the stops in a dramatic performance that will long stay with me--certainly the best she has ever been in my experience at the Met. It is the opera's sole show-stopping set piece (except for the ending) and, following a list of grand women who have sung the role, Coote certainly did (more than) justice to it.

If there is a main character in the opera (though she disappears quite often), it is Blanche de ls Force, the "fearful, nervous" young woman who chooses to become a member of the Carmelite order as the opera begins. She ably portrayed by soprano Ailyn Perez. Despite the robust size of her voice, she is able to manipulate it as called for: soaring when she needs to, falling into the background when she must, as she feels the Revolution closing in around her. She was also a fine foil--in voice as well as temperament--to the other novice of the order, Sister Constance, sung with charm but poise as well by French soprano Sabine Devieilhe.

Review: Exquisitely Subtle CARMELITES Makes Another of Its Brief Stops at the Met
Goerke and Sisters. Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera

Soprano Christine Goerke brought a bit of her Valkyrie self to the role of the new Mother Superior, Madame Lidoine, always in charge of her flock and ready to take them to their final rewards. The ever-reliable velvet heft of mezzo Jamie Barton was well-used as Mother Marie, with strength to spare in her treatment of those she needs to guide.

All the women (including mezzo Eve Gigliotti who stood out in several scenes) brilliantly convey their strength and faith, differentiating themselves, in the finale, as they go to their deaths.

Review: Exquisitely Subtle CARMELITES Makes Another of Its Brief Stops at the Met
Devieilhe, Perez. Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera

Despite the spotlight on all the women in the cast, there were a few men (other than the soldiers who made their appearance late in the opera). These included bass-baritone Laurent Naouri, as Blanche's father, a relic of the past, whose French was surprisingly difficult to comprehend considering his French nationality, and tenor Piotr Buszewski, making his Met debut, as Blanche's brother, the Chevalier de la Force. I was impressed when heard him in his US debut at NY City Opera several years ago in a pair of Pygmalion-themed one-acters and, again in a Met national auditions concert; I was pleased to see him moving forward so well.

It was an impossibly moving evening at the Met--perhaps among the most in the company's repertoire--and I look forward to its next iteration. If only the company resists the temptation to throw out this baby with the bathwater of bringing new productions to its audiences.

There are three more performances of DIALOGUES DES CARMELITES this season, Saturday January 21 at 8pm, Wednesday the 25th at 7:30 and Saturday the 28th at 1pm. As Shakespeare might have said: "Get thee to a nunnery." See the Met's website for more information and tickets.



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