Story: With the rise to power of Robespierre and the French Revolution of 1789 began the Reign of Terror, a purging of the aristocracy and its sympathizers, real or imagined. Blanche de la Force, daughter of the wealthy Marquis de la Force, joins the Carmelite order of nuns to take refuge from the political turmoil.
She is warned by the Prioress that there is little safety in the convent as well and that she can only find peace within herself. Blanche is befriended by another novitiate, Sister Constance of St. Denis, who tells her that she has had a premonition that the two of them will die together.
Blanche remains with the Carmelites for several years, but leaves when Robespierre’s mob first kills her father and then threatens to attack the convent. On trumped-up charges the sisters are led to the guillotine, joined again by Blanche just before their execution.
Highlights: Dialogues of the Carmelites was inspired by the true story of the martyrdom of several nuns of Compeigne in 1794 during the French Revolution, a tale recounted later by Sister Marie de l’Incarnation, a Carmelite who happened to be away from the convent when the executions took place.
The event was the basis of a 1931 novel by German writer Gertrud von Le Fort, and was developed into a screenplay in 1947 by French writer Georges Bernanos. The never-produced screenplay was turned by Bernanos into a play that then was adapted by composer/librettist Francis Poulenc into a three-act opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites. It received its world premiere at La Scala in Milan in 1957.
Now, performed in two acts in an English translation by Joseph Machlis, Dialogues of the Carmelites is receiving its first production at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in a beautifully sung treatment directed reverentially by Robin Guarino, who makes her OTSL debut with this affecting presentation.
Other Info: At three hours in length and with minimal action, Dialogues of the Carmelites is more a work of art than a vibrant, dynamic experience. The first act in particular moves at a glacial pace as it goes about describing the atmosphere inside the Compiegne convent.
Still, it is surprising in the way the libretto depicts the candid political and harsh practical assessments of Madame de Croissy, the Prioress when Blanche joins the order, and her successor, Madame Lidoine. These nuns may be devoted to prayer and solitude, but Poulenc conveys that their human observations and fears are just as pronounced as anyone else.
Most of the drama occurs in the second act, culminating in a chilling extended scene when the life of each of the nuns is extinguished by the sudden, deadly slice of the guillotine. This takes place in suppressed illumination that accentuates the lighting design by James Ingalls.
The set designed by Andrew Liebermann consists primarily of a large central piece that can be maneuvered as a room at the Marquis’ palace, the Carmelite convent, a prison and finally the execution site at the Place de la Revolution. A particularly affecting scene occurs just before the climax, when the condemned Carmelites write their names on a prison wall.
The voices that deliver Poulenc’s lyrics are strong, clear and resonant under Guarino’s careful (too careful in the first act) direction. Christine Brewer, the pride of Lebanon, Illinois and a former Gerdine Young Artist, shows why her soprano is in demand worldwide with a rich, full-throated interpretation of Madame Lidoine.
Soprano Kelly Kaduce, another audience favorite, hits all the right notes while also faithfully conveying the emotional and psychological fragility of the patrician Blanche. As the irrepressible Sister Constance of St. Denis, Ashley Emerson delightfully transmits the eternal spark of optimism in the young novitiate from the hinterlands.
Daveda Karanas, making her OTSL debut, is persuasive in the role of Mother Marie of the Incarnation, the assistant prioress who is surprisingly passed over for promotion after the death of Madame de Croissy, but whose spiritual leadership propels the entire convent. Meredith Arwady is a dominating presence as the terminally ill prioress Madame de Croissy, whose fitful death is more arresting than reassuring to the sisters.
Troy Cook portrays Blanche’s widowed father, the Marquis de la Force, Michael Porter puts his clear tenor to good use as her brother the Chevalier de la Force and Kyle Erdos-Knapp sings the role of the Father Confessor of the convent.
Poulenc’s sumptuous score is given a faithful reading by conductor Ward Stare and members of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. Kaye Voyce provides the period costumes and Tom Watson is wig and makeup designer.
Dialogues of the Carmelites is best appreciated in the second act, although Poulenc’s score and OTSL voices are polished throughout.
Opera: Dialogues of the Carmelites
Company: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: June 26, 28
Tickets: $25-$125; contact 961-0644 or ExperienceOpera.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Ken Howard