Dialogues des Carmélites, Poulenc

Juilliard Vocal Arts

21st April, 2010

Shelter from the Storm

Francis Poulenc’s 1957 masterpiece, Dialogues des Carmélites, is increasingly becoming a favorite selection for school productions. One assumes this is because of its nature as an ensemble piece and its plethora of female roles, but it is in many ways an odd choice for a conservatory because the drama is stocked with older, seasoned characters that require gravitas and vocal power in equal proportion.

That being said, a young, Juilliard-quality cast of Carmélites has much to offer by way of freshness and sincerity. Fabrizio Melano’s simple, intimate staging respectfully (if at times cautiously) focused its attention on the characters themselves, resulting in a very warm and human production. Donald Eastman’s set, a plywood cruciform stage framed by two large hearth-like walls, was fittingly humble and poetic, and the lighting, by Jane Cox, literally glowed from within, ember-like. But I wondered if the director could have elicited even more intensity from this talented cast, as the overall reading was, for my taste, a little too cleansed of the urgency and violence that permeate the opera.

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Photos by: Nan Melville

This sense was surely also the result of the very skillful but temperate conducting of Anne Manson in the pit. The orchestra played exceptionally cleanly and sensitively, achieving a beautifully burnished French sound without ever covering even the lightest voices in the cast, a challenge of some of the heavier sections. And while it never became sluggish (the other pitfall of the piece), it lacked punctuation at times, and never really soared when called for.

The singers were generally very impressive, though the lead role of Blanche de la Force seemed slightly beyond Tharanga Goonetilleke, whose voice was pretty but diffuse and often strained. Paul Appleby as the Chevalier was both elegant and forceful, managing the top notes beautifully and exuding the right note of aristocratic privilege. Haeran Hong, with a porcelain visage and a voice like purest nectar, was perfectly cast as Constance. She brought humor and a bird-like energy, as well as effortlessly graceful phrasing, to the part. Lacey Jo Benter offered a straightforward if somewhat mild Old Prioress. Renée Tatum seemed to grow into the very challenging role of Mère Marie over the course of the evening, evolving into a formidable (and sometimes predatory) figure. Her voice had an iridescent quality, layered with different colors that were well demonstrated by the broad range of the role.

The moral and spiritual weakness of the male figures in Carmélites is always striking, and the contrast of Mère Marie’s powerful presence with that of the milquetoast chaplain was especially vivid here in the casting of the soft-edged tenor, Javier Ernesto Bernardo. The folly of women being denied the role of executors of the sacraments in the Catholic Church is brought home in the final prison scene, in which the New Prioress becomes priest, mother, and martyr all at once.

Emalie Savoy sang this role impressively, with warmth, ease, and a generosity of demeanor. Her diction was excellent, as was that of the whole cast (much credit is due to Denise Massé for its preparation). I felt she did not show enough of her humanity and rage at the end, denying us a proper catharsis, but perhaps this was partly the fault of the staging, in which the sisters just sort of slipped off into a poorly lit wing of the proscenium. Some of them did manage to make something of the moment: Carla Jablonski as Mère Jeanne was especially poignant with her plodding but proud gait; Blanche and Constance’s sharing of a final, secret hand signal reminded us that they were just teenage girls beneath their habits.

But despite these affecting touches, what was lacking throughout was the sense of the inexorable path to the guillotine. The tension and menace that looms over the opera from the first note - like Wilde’s “purple thread of doom” - felt subdued, and when the chopping-block was at last reached, the sound effect was clipped and subtle.

In the end, I felt that the director was maybe trying to protect his flock too much, or that he had underestimated them and what they have to give. It is the very safety of the school environment, of the practice room, that should enable budding musicians to perform their most radical explorations and experiments. I didn’t feel that those experiments were being performed in this production, as admirably accomplished as it was.

To paraphrase the wise words of the Old Prioress: a school cannot be a refuge; it should be the place where you are pushed to test the very limits of your self.

Bottom line: A classy but safe Carmélites


Georges Briscot


response to this review: response@operaticus.com

Production Credits

Conductor: Anne Manson
Director: Fabrizio Melano
Set Designer: Donald Eastman
Costumes: Andrea Hood
Lighting: Jane Cox
Diction Coach: Denise Massé


Blanche de la Force: Tharanga Goonetilleke
Madame de Croissy (Prioress): Lacey Jo Benter
Madame Lidoine (New Prioress): Emalie Savoy
Mère Marie: Renée Tatum
Constance: Haeran Hong
Chevalier de la Force: Paul Appleby
The Chaplain: Javier Ernesto Bernardo
Marquis de la Force: Timothy Benken
Mère Jeanne: Carla Jablonski
Soeur Mathilde: Naomi O’Connell
First Commissioner: Daniel Curran
Second Commissioner : Adrian Rosas
Officer: Drew Santini
Jailer: Andreas Aroditis