Glimmerglass and the New York City Opera have a hit on their hands with this radiant production of Poulenc’s 1957 “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” It more than atones for the NYCO’s unfortunate 1966 attempt at the opera, and it can hold its head up proudly against the almost legendary reputation of John Dexter’s Metropolitan Opera production. Beautifully played, sung, conducted and directed, it’s an admirably all-of-a-piece creation. Whether it has the same lustrous impact at the much larger New York State Theater remains to be seen, but director Tazewell Thompson and set designer Donald Eastman have done everything to ensure the singing should project as clearly as possible, greatly helped by the action taking place far forward on the stage, with walls and scrims sending the already strong singing straight out front.
As in Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande,” a clear influence on Poulenc’s glorious “Carmelites,” the orchestra plays a leading role. Conductor Stewart Robertson and the Glimmerglass orchestra rise to the occasion splendidly (but for a few wind burbles), reveling in Poulenc’s rapturous, sumptuously orchestrated score. And though there are no arias in the conventional sense, there’s plenty of dramatic-lyrical singing and ample opportunities for powerful high notes. As for the chorus work, it’s used discreetly, giving it great impact when it’s heard, never more so than in the heartfelt beauty of the singing choruses of nuns. The production is performed in admirably clear English rather than French, Poulenc apparently having requested that his opera be sung in the language of whatever country it is presented. English surtitles also are provided.
Thompson’s direction is exemplary in that it seldom calls attention to itself, allowing the score, orchestra and singers to provide the urgent French Revolution drama. Only at the end, when the crowd watching the Carmelite nuns go to their deaths is wearing black costumes updated to the 1920s or ’30s, is the direction a bit heavy-handed. Presumably Thompson wanted to suggest fascism, Nazism and/or the German occupation of France in WWII. But this does no real harm to the power of Poulenc’s closing scene. Thompson’s use of orchestral interludes to continue the drama (such as when Blanche is dressed as a novice by the other nuns between the second and third scenes) works well.
The entire cast is strong. Certainly the production couldn’t get off to a better start than with the mature strength of Jake Gardner’s Marquis, the ardent youthfulness of Jason Collins as his son and the powerful pure soprano of Maria Kanyova as daughter Blanche. All of the leading nuns’ roles are strongly performed, notably by Joyce Castle as the elderly, dying prioress. Well matched are Robynne Redmon as Mother Marie, Anne Evans as the new prioress, Marion Pratnicki as Mother Jeanne and Kate Mangiameli as Sister Mathilde. Sarah Coburn is a delightful chatterbox as young Sister Constance.
The curtain rises on a simply set stage with a wooden-plank floor, a long table covered by a draped claret-red cloth and a swagged red drape suggesting the Marquis’ home. The scrim behind eventually rises to reveal the basic set, a stone wall with a series of other stone walls jutting out of it that can be moved to create, at first, five nuns’ cells, later a prison, and so forth. It’s all aptly austere. At the end, a long, raised wooden walkway leads offstage to the waiting guillotine, the nuns individually walking the plank to their martyrdom, some bravely, some haltingly, as the score becomes more and more ecstatic, Kanyova’s pivotal Blanche ultimately joining them as her faith overcomes her fear.
Merrily Murray-Walsh’s costumes, with jewel-rich colors contrasted against the prevailing black and white, and Robert Wierzel’s dramatic, sometimes expressionist lighting, are integral parts of this fine production.