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BWW Reviews: DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES at the Kennedy Center

Poulenc's music is almost hard to believe; romantic without sweetness, contemporary without alienating, and among the extraordinary composers repertoire this epic opera stands out as a remarkable achievement, and this season Washington National Opera Artistic Director Francesca Zambello has designed a beautiful production to accompany it. That and some of the most impressive vocal power on display anywhere in the city makes the Kennedy Center's latest operatic offering an absolute joy to the senses.

DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES was composed by Francis Poulenc between 1953-1956 and premiered in 1957 at La Scala in Milan. Poulenc specified for the opera to be performed in the language of the audience, so at the Kennedy Center it is sung with an English translation by Joseph Machlis, (with supertitles projected over the stage). The English libretto is clear, understandable and incredibly modern, mainly composed of dialogues set in recitative that makes the piece easy to follow. DIALOGUES dramatizes the story of the nuns of the Carmelite order who sang their way to their death at the guillotines during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution. Poulenc was known for his beautiful vocal music and DIALOGUES is filled with stunning arias for its sopranos and a haunting a cappella setting of "Ave Maria" that will stay with the audience all through intermission.

Echoing the muted palette of a convent and the nun's habits, Hildegard Bechtler's set and Claudie Gastine's costumes are largely grayscale but never dull. Zambello's entire production has amazing depth and a novel use of shadows that adds a unique flavor to WNO's company premier of the opera. The set is made up of monolithic, curved sets that the characters seem to disappear in and out of. It's a quiet innovation, but the way the performers make their entrances and exits around those walls, instead of simply walking off stage, makes the onstage movement so much more believable, and the "candlelight" illuminating their shadows is magical. But what truly pulls this production together is Mark McCullough's light design which subtly weaves in more and more color into the stage as red and blue begin to appear in order to accent the drama.

All this brilliance only serves to elevate the brilliant performances by the WNO company. Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick overflows with passion, even when confined to a bed or a chair. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop drives the entire performance as Mother Marie and soprano Layla Claire truly shines with some of the most lyrical material in the score. The way the singers voices fill the vast opera house unamplified is a treat for any opera lover and a pleasent surprise for the uninitiated. The WNO Chorus is threatening, yet perfectly synched, as the French mob. Credit to Music Director Philippe Auguin for putting together such a solid and splendid production. Maestro Antony Walker leads the WNO Orchestra with ease and gusto. Perfectly balanced under the singers, the orchestra maintains an intensity that makes Poulenc's brilliant orhcestrations sparkle.

All around, the WNO has come together to produce another event that feels incredibly special. There are simply no better works of this kind being performed anywhere in the vicinity. DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES may have a truly tragic ending, but Zambello has momentarily revived the Martyrs of Compiegne through the ever lasting power of Poulenc's music.

Photos by Scott Sushman.

Runtime is approximately three hours with one twenty minute intermission.

DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES runs at the Kennedy Center Opera House Friday, February 27 at 7:30pm, Thursday, March 5 at 7:30pm, Sunday, March 8 at 2pm, and Tuesday, March 10 at 7:30pm. Tickets start at $25 and are available online at, in person at the Kennedy Center Box Office, and by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.

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