John Dexter was appointed director of productions at the Metropolitan Opera in 1974, and over the next seven years he and music director James Levine turned the Met into the country’s best resident theater company. In addition to staging rep standards, Dexter was a passionate advocate of 20th-century works, mounting stunning productions of operas by Berg, Stravinsky, Brecht and Weill, and Britten, among others.
But none was as stunning as his stark, spare staging of Francis Poulenc’s 1957 “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” an event that no one in the audience on opening night in February 1977 is likely to forget. Absent from the repertory since 1987, “Dialogues” returns this season; in the capable hands of American conductor Kent Nagano and a cast headed by Dawn Upshaw, Teresa Stratas and Florence Quivar, the production has lost none of its power and remains a great tribute to Dexter, who died in 1990.
Based on the play of the same name by George Bernanos, which was itself based on a true episode, “Dialogues” follows Blanche de la Force (Upshaw), an aristocratic young Parisian whose crisis of faith leads her to renounce her family and join the Carmelite order during the last days of the French revolution. The opera begins with the nuns prostrate on a raked, monumental cruciform set, an image suggesting both prayer and death; the first act ends with the harrowing death of Madame de Croissy, the first Prioress (Helga Dernesch), whose physical pain has brought on her own crisis of faith and also prefigures the terrible fate lying in store for the sisters.
Blanche befriends a fellow novice, Constance (Heidi Grant Murphy), and turns away the brother who pleads for her to return to her family, singing “Where I am , nothing can harm me.” When the nunnery, now under the second Prioress (Stratas), is targeted by the revolutionary authorities, the sisters all take a vow of martyrdom. After a brief departure in which she works as a scullery maid in the home the tribunal has taken over after murdering her father, Blanche returns to the nuns in time for the opera’s haunting finale: Buffeted by an angry mob in the Place de la Revolution, the sisters, singing vespers, walk upstage to the darkness where the guillotine awaits, their voices dropping off one by one as the blade drops.
With only a few set pieces to David Reppa’s simple set, and a seamless flow to the action, Dexter kept the focus on the music — which is both minimal and ravishing — and the text. As the title suggests, words are of the utmost importance, and Poulenc insisted that the opera be presented in the language of the country where it is being performed; thus here in English.
The current cast is very good, though with one exception not as good as the one that premiered the work here 17 years ago. The exception is Stratas, who despite her lilliputian stature completely dominates the stage as Madame Lidoine with that unmistakable voice that seems splintered with humanity. (There’s an irony here: Four days before “Carmelites” opened in 1977, Stratas dropped out of Dexter’s next production, Berg’s “Lulu.””The details are too boring,” he wrote designer Jocelyn Herbert, “and I am too busy killing nuns to have had time to be angry.”)
Upshaw, a singer much in demand these days, has a bit too much toughness in her and doesn’t demand our pity the way Maria Ewing did, while Murphy isn’t quite the lively, uncomplicated foil Betsy Norden was, though she’s close, and the two are fine nonetheless. Moreover, Quivar is a formidable Mother Marie, Dernesch pathetic enough as the dying Madame de Croissy. Nagano has recorded “Carmelites” and found a sympathetic Met orchestra, extracting a beautiful sound from the ensemble.
Dexter, whose Broadway triumphs included Peter Shaffer’s “Equus” and David Henry Hwang’s “M. Butterfly,” left it for others — notably Franco Zeffirelli in the ’80s — to bring massive visual opulence to the Met stage. Dexter’s productions, by contrast, stripped away the froufrou to reveal a work’s essential musical power. No one who cares about theater, let alone opera, should miss “Dialogues of the Carmelites.”