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Poulenc’s Dynamic Dialogues

Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center
03/05/2014 -  & March 7, 9*, 2014
Francis Poulenc: Dialogues des Carmélites
Roy Hage*/Spencer Lang (le Chevalier de la Force), Jarrett Ott*/Jamez McCorkle (le Marquis de la Force), Rachel Stennenberg*/Alize Rozsnyai (Blanche de la Force), Sean Michael Plumb (Thierry), Shir Rozzen (Mme de Croissy), Sarah Shafer*/Ashley Milanese (Sœur Constance), Lin Shi (Sœur Mathilde), Jazimina MacNeil*/Lauren Eberwein (Mère Marie), Nian Wang (Mère Jeanne), Vartan Gabrielian (Javelinot), Heather Stebbins (Mme Lidoine), Jamez McCorkle (Chaplain), Mingjie Lei (First Commissoner), Dennis Schmelenski (Second Commissioner), Jonathan McCullough (Jailer)
Elizabeth Braden (chorus master), Curtis Symphony Orchestra, Corrado Rovaris (conductor)
Jordan Fein (stage director), Laura Jellinek (scenic design), Terese Wadden (costume design), Mike Inwood (lighting design)

R. Sterrenberg, S. Rozen, J. MacNeil (© Cory Weaver)

Curtis Opera Theater and Opera Philadelphia presented the much anticipated and long pre-sold out run of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. OP’s resident conductor Corrado Rovaris leads the Curtis Symphony Orchestra musicians and the cast is from the Curtis’ Opera Theatre, under artistic director Mikael Eliasen and choral direction for this production by Elizabeth Braden.

Poulenc couldn’t have picked a more gruesome subject, the massacre of 16 Carmelite nuns in Compiègne, in 1794 during the French Revolution reign of terror. Despite, or because of the carnage in Dialogues, Poulenc’s lyricism just continues to bloom, luminous, even in its darkness. Composed in 1953, with text by Georges Bernanos (and un-credited, Poulenc himself), this is a fascinating libretto, which indeed, includes metaphysical dialogues between the Carmelites. It is engaging throughout even when it leads to ponderous plot points. Meanwhile, Poulenc's orchestral interludes are cinematic, in the best sense, and remind you of the literalness, of say, Max Steiner.

The drama starts immediately as the Marquis de la Force and his son the Chevalier contemplate the disposition of Blanche, the Marquis' daughter in a time of anarchy. Instead of being married off, Blanche confesses to them that she wants to join the order of the Carmelite nuns. Against their wishes, she leaves for the convent, unconcerned over her safety as a member of an aristocratic family. Her vocation is clear to her and she gladly yields to the will and strict instruction of her Carmelite sisters. She befriends Constance, another novitiate, and they bond as they navigate their youth, mission, and faith.

Meanwhile, tragedy looms in the convent as the Mother Superior is on her deathbed in the throes of a terminal illness and, in her delirium, portends doom for the order. The nuns honor her in death by caring on her vocations of prayer and faith, despite the insurgents seizing properties and assets in the name of a liberated France. Their priest is denounced and the order must hide him, before he flees for his life. The order must surrender their habits and wear street clothes, but despite this continue their mission to protect the order of the Carmelites, whose mission is to pray.

They are to be exiled as traitors to the revolution and they take a vow of martyrdom, except for Blanche, who cannot face the fear of it. She is visited by her father, who tries to talk her out into leaving the order for her own protection. She returns home only to find that her father has been guillotined. In street clothes, her sisters of the order are marked for execution.

Sopranos Rachel Sterrenberg and Sarah Sanford, as Blanche and Constance, give their characters depth and vocal subtly. Sterrenberg conveys so much about her character in the opening scene, donning a Versailles hoop skirt and wig, literally uncomfortable in her own skin. Roy Hage, who makes the most of his all but disheveled Chevalier in the first scene, and Sterrenberg also have wonderful chemistry as siblings, while Ott’s soulful baritone belies his heartbreak over leaving his sister to an ominous fate.

Mezzo-soprano Shir Rozzen pulled out all of the dramatic stops as the faith doubting dying Mother Superior and was vocally mesmerizing. Strong supporting players led by Jazimina MacNeil and Heather Stebbins, as the nuns who take over the convent.

Stage director Jordan Fein has some static blocking to contend with in the serene setting of a convent, coupled with spare set design, which makes some of the dramatic focus hazy. It also would have been visually more effective to keep the opening act period costume design consistent. Later, when soldiers charge in wearing modern paramilitary garb, it seems editorial and misplaced.

Nonetheless, that is being nit-picky, because this was a fine vocal cast and Rovaris brought such translucence to the denser enclaves in the score. The haunting and penetrating strings of harpists Anna Odell and Elizabeth White Clark, were among many outstanding Curtis musicians in the pit.

The finale brings much more subtlety from Fein, who creates a searing denouement as the Carmelites, singing a devotional, disappear one by one. Finally, Blanche moves toward her sisters and goes to embrace Constance, who falls into her arms.

Lewis Whittington



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