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In Review > Concerts and Recitals

Les Dialogues des Carmélites

KATONAH, NY
Caramoor Festival
7/25/15

The front of the stage was lined with music stands, and before the conductor gave his first downbeat, the women took their places behind them and donned their nuns’ habits. If you remembered that Poulenc’s 1956 opera about the martyred sisters in a French convent during the Revolution doesn’t actually open with the nuns, then you would have been ahead of the joke: the women gripped the stands, lifted them up and carried them offstage, revealing the Marquis de la Force, sitting in an armchair. There may have been no set behind Daniel Mobbs, who played the role, but this was no stiff, on-book concert performance — instead, a semi-staging that brought the gabby drama vividly to life.

It was directed by Victoria Crutchfield, daughter of conductor and Caramoor’s director of opera Will Crutchfield — who led a clear account of the shifty score, teasing out its Debussian dreaminess — which helps explain why the festival that built its reputation on bel canto would perform such a decidedly non-bel canto work. (The other opera at Caramoor this summer was La Favorite.) But much more than nepotism was at play here; Victoria’s production proved itself deserving, allowing the opera’s many, many nuns to stand out as individuals and not blob together as a mass of black robes and hoods. The thhhUNNNKs of the offstage guillotine blade at the end were especially gut-rattling, because you recognized the singularity of every neck it cut. 

The open-air setting was even more generous than the production. The evening wasn’t uncomfortably warm, and the buzzing crickets created an ineffably numinous impression of man harmonizing with nature, accentuated by the occasional stray firefly, moth or bat. Dialogues couldn’t have a more proper venue — a divine backdrop for its intense probing of philosophy, theology and politics. 

Blanche anchors most of these discussions, and Jennifer Check proved ideal for the role, though she most often sings this opera as Madame Lidoine; Check’s soprano is strong and clean, with rich vibrato. Alisa Jordheim, as Sister Constance, had a capable but unsturdy voice, prettiest when it didn’t have to push; to a lesser extent, the same was true of Jennifer Larmore, as Mother Marie. Noah Baetge, in the small role of Blanche’s brother, stood out: he had not only a beefy instrument but exceptional dramatic skill to back it up. 

Deborah Polaski, as Madame de Croissy, seemed to be singing from her cheeks, but the resulting impure timbre seemed well-suited to her role as the bitter prioress approaching death, and her final scene was quite affecting. Hei-Kyung Hong sang the character’s replacement, Madame Lidoine, providing a sturdy center for the second half of the opera; she anchored the performance much as she does everything she appears in these days. Her “Mes filles, voilà que s'achève notre première nuit de prison" was a highlight, sung with real courage — not fearlessness, but acknowledgement of, without surrender to, the fright that suffuses it. spacer

HENRY STEWART

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