Opera fans will tell you Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” is the one where all the nuns get their heads chopped off at the end. Few have actually witnessed this incredibly moving finale; fewer still are the directors who have found a solution to this difficult stage direction. Theater an der Wien maintains its place as Vienna’s best opera company with a subtle yet gut-wrenching production by Robert Carsen.
In the years immediately preceding the French Revolution, Blanche (Sally Matthews), the daughter of the rich Marquise de la Force (veteran Jean-Philippe Lafont in a forceful cameo), harbors such fear of daily life she joins a convent of Carmelite nuns to escape the world. When the order is forced to disband by the revolutionary tribunal, the nuns unanimously agree to a vow of martyrdom. They are jailed, found guilty of crimes against the republic, and sent to the guillotine.
Based on a never-filmed screenplay, the libretto consists mostly of dialogue. The most important exchanges are those between Blanche and the innocently irreverent but ultimately profound Sister Constance (Patricia Petibon), and with the Old Prioress (Marjana Lipovsek), painfully nearing the end of a life devoted to the order.Carsen masterfully keeps things simple, with a mostly bare stage allowing no distractions from the all-important text. Lighting by Jean Kalman and Christine Binder tells all we need to know: warm, amber side-lighting suggests the dim glow of candlelight while blinding white light illustrates the violence of the outside world. Poetic groupings of the nuns are broken by dozens of angry citizens, impressive in their number, as they jolt us back into the reality of the revolution.
In the gripping finale, the nuns sing a simple Salve Regina while, one by one, their voices cease as the guillotine repeatedly falls, frighteningly off the beat of the music. When only Constance is left, she turns to see Blanche, who has run away from the convent, return to join her.
Carsen ingeniously avoids a literal depiction. The nuns, in plain white robes, stand in formation and execute simple, lyrical choreography with their heads and arms, each falling in slow motion with the thwack of the blade. When Blanche’s final words are cut off mid-phrase, she raises her arms and is bathed in a golden light from above.
Matthews shows every ounce of Blanche’s anxiety, fear and ultimate acceptance of her vows, while Petibon’s frisky Constance is sheer delight in her banter and beatific in descriptions of her faith.
Heidi Brunner (Madame Lidoine) and Michelle Breedt (Mother Marie) pour out oceans of luscious tone in their extended monologues, and Yann Beuron makes much of Blanche’s brother, who fails to persuade her to escape the convent. However, as the Old Prioress, Lipovsek, her once-lush mezzo ravaged by the decades, gives a mannered performance of her death scene.
Conductor Bertrand de Billy perfectly calibrates the pace of Poulenc’s lush score, building to a tension so subtle it’s almost imperceptible until the epiphany at the final blackout. Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien plays so gorgeously it’s enough to make an atheist have second thoughts.