In Review > North America

Dialogues des Carmélites

The Metropolitan Opera

In Review Carmelites hdl 713
Leonard and Bishop, Blanche and Mère Marie in the Met's Dialogues
© Beth Bergman 2013

John Dexter's 1977 staging of Dialogues des Carmélites, the oldest production of the Met's 2012–13 season, remains easily one of the most effective in the company's repertory. Even if the scenery elements descending from the flies manifest the design tropes of their era, the central image of David Reppa's set — the huge crucifix that serves as the stage floor — was as potent as ever: its stark geometry made the nuns' final march to martyrdom inevitable. As seen at the matinée opening on May 4, the production itself, revived by director David Kneuss, remained a paragon of expressive economy. The characters moved when they had to move; at other times, their stillness created its own dramatic statement. The tactic made the moments of forceful gesture all the more telling: when the Old Prioress suddenly sat bolt upright in her deathbed, we knew that something terrible was happening.

The Met has always cast Poulenc's opera with care. The present team was a strong one, if not in all cases obliterating memories of illustrious predecessors. Blanche de la Force was mezzo Isabel Leonard. She is a beautiful woman with a lovely, creamy voice, but Leonard's very poise as a performer told against her in this assignment. She transmitted little sense of the obsessive fearfulness that drives Blanche into the convent and makes her last-minute sacrifice so moving. Still, Leonard made Blanche's music sound beautiful — if abstractly so. 

Patricia Racette, a masterful Blanche in the Met's 2002 revival, here sang her first Mme. Lidoine for the Met. In the early history of Carmélites, the role was assigned to lushly endowed sopranos such as Leontyne Price, Joan Sutherland and Régine Crespin. Racette is not a singer in that mold: with her limited palette of vocal colors and her wiry top, she cannot make vocal timbre a benediction in and of itself. But she compensated through her scrupulous phrasing and her quietly luminous stage presence, investing the role with a warmth that the voice itself lacked. 

The role of Madame de Croissy is famously an occasion for a tour de force, and so it was as incarnated by Felicity Palmer. The British mezzo is sixty-nine, but her tone was extraordinarily firm and clear. This was no decrepit old woman but a person in full possession of her faculties, raging against death with a fighter's strength. 

Mère Marie, as Elizabeth Bishop portrayed her, could almost have been two different people. In her initial scenes, she was a recessive presence, her responses to Croissy all but subsumed into the orchestral texture. After the prioress's death, her singing rang out with clarion force. It was as if, with the possibility of new authority ahead, this ambiguous character had now found her voice. 

Erin Morley was an ideal Soeur Constance, not just because of the dewiness of her leggiero soprano but because of the alertness of her musical response. The decisive attack that Morley brought to Constance's many upward leaps suggested the quickened heartbeat of extreme youth. David Pittsinger, in fine voice, didn't quite delineate the mood shifts in the Marquis de la Force's desultory ramblings. But Paul Appleby, through the conscientiousness of his singing, suggested the Chevalier de la Force's thoughtful nature. Conductor Louis Langrée found the contrasts in a score that risks dissolving into pastel murmuration. Under his leadership, the Met forces delivered the grand guignolfinale with devastating impact. spacer


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