Dialogues des Carmélites, Poulenc
The Metropolitan Opera
9th May, 2013
Just Like a Prayer
While I resist the romanticization of “legendary” old productions, it has to be said that John Dexter’s deceptively simple (and low-budget) 1977 Carmélites, now in a too-brief revival at the Met, earns its status. It is the exceptional cast of its current incarnation, however, led by a revelatory Isabel Leonard in the lead role of Blanche, that makes this production live. The emotional focus of their performances propels the fluid and spare choreography of the production, and it is a rare pleasure to hear such singular voices of all ages and timbres brought together in one show.
What Ms. Leonard achieves as Blanche is remarkable not only in her singing, which is beautifully and precisely produced, but in the way she allows us to empathize with her character’s existential journey. She does not “play” the standard version of Blanche as a skittish, neurotic girl, but rather presents a noblewoman of deep sensitivity and melancholy, searching for meaning.
Also exceptional was Erin Morley, delivering nuanced perfection in the role of Constance. You will never hear the requiem duet sung more beautifully than by these two.
Paul Appleby was the third young gun in the cast, and he brought a refreshing adolescent sincerity, as well as beauty of tone, to the character of the Chevalier. Rare for a tenor in this role, he appropriately focused all of his energy on Blanche, and never resorted to merely strutting his own vocalism.
Patricia Racette was deeply affecting as Mme. Lidoine, presenting a kind and simple woman doing her best in impossible circumstances. Her powerful voice projected easily with its youthful directness and brightness, filled out with maternal warmth.
Elizabeth Bishop touchingly allowed her Mère Marie to have humanizing moments of softness (a smile, a knowing nod), revealing the threatened nature behind her steely resolve and soaring high notes. Her horror was viscerally felt in her collapse and staggering offstage at the end.
Dame Felicity Palmer utterly inhabits the role of the Old Prioress. She brings all the necessary directness, wisdom, and weariness to the character, and sings with such precise pitch and spaciousness (at one point allowing a rest to endure for 10 very pregnant seconds!) that one hears the score anew.
Several of the lower-voiced males in the cast were less impressive, and can be lumped together, unfortunately, for their stiff and pitchy singing. Although these roles were smaller (the Marquis; the soldier and jailer) and did not detract from the overall production very much, even small roles at the Met should be cast with the best singers available. The soldiers were also a weak point of the production direction-wise, in my opinion. They seemed either under-directed (barely interacting with the nuns in what should be their terrifying home invasion) or over-directed (the histrionics of the jailer reading their sentence at the end).
Acoustically, the final walk to the scaffold was also impaired by the staging (each of the nuns turning upstage and walking off the back of the set). This was not so much of a problem until we got to the end of the Salve Regina, when the unison chorus gives way to the poignancy of individual voices. Hearing the youngest (Constance) and the oldest voice (Mre. Jeanne) sing their final duet together in Poulenc’s strange harmony is a shocking musical moment that was sadly lost.
Otherwise, Maestro Langrée maintained a superb balance between the stage and pit, bringing the orchestra down or having it take the lead on a phrase-by-phrase basis, like a chamber musician. He clearly understood the drama of the piece and let its magical moments take their time unfolding. The more aggressive parts of the score had the right edge of anxiety or awe, and the soaring brass played their significant part as well as any orchestra I have ever heard.
The overall effect of this Carmélites is spellbinding: from the soft-edged lighting to the mesmerizingly fluid transitions between scenes; from Ms. Leonard’s Blanche, entering so gracefully, as if on casters, to Ms. Racette’s Lidoine, pausing to turn and take in her “daughters” at their final parting . . . Dexter’s exquisitely subtle Carmélites demands a prayer-like focus from performers and audience alike, and rewards us with transcendence. In our distracted age, it is a balm to the soul, and something of a miracle in and of itself.
Bottom line: the legend lives on.
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Conductor: Louis Langrée
Production: John Dexter
Set Designer: David Reppa
Costume Designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting Designer: Gil Wechsler
Blanche de la Force: Isabel Leonard
Mme Lidoine: Patricia Racette
Constance: Erin Morley
Mère Marie: Elizabeth Bishop
First Prioress: Felicity Palmer
Chevalier de la Force: Paul Appleby