Dialogues of the Carmelites

Dialogues des Carmelites, photo @ Ken Howard

Poulenc's masterpiece Dialogues des Carmelites only has three performances at the Met this season. Which means ... you should definitely try to catch one of the two remaining performances either in person or in HD, because opera does not get more devastating than this. I went in only having seen the opera on video. Nothing could have prepared me for the impact of seeing it live in person. This is the sort of opera that makes you unable to sleep at night.

Isabel Leonard and Karila Mattila, photo @ Ken Howard
The cast varied from good to great. Isabel Leonard in the central role of Blanche checked all the boxes -- she sings well, she acts well, and she's a very beautiful woman to boot. However temperamentally there's something missing. Leonard exudes a calm serenity onstage. Blanche is someone who's been having nervous breakdowns all her life. As the situation with the Carmelites grows more desperate one realized that Leonard doesn't have enough in her toolbox to convey all the inner anguish Blanche feels. The pivotal duet with Blanche's brother (David Portillo) was surprisingly vacant.

Part of this might be due to the timbre of her voice.  It is a smooth but somewhat generic-sounding lyric mezzo that sounds rather mature and not like the "little rabbit" her brother calls her. The role also lies too high for her as some of her high notes were shrieky. The role is usually sung by a soprano. Leonard gave a vey competent, professional performance. It just wasn't transporting.

Karita Mattila as Madame de Croissy was a case of mind over matter. Mattila has charisma to burn and was a compelling actress. Whenever she was onstage you couldn't take your eyes off her. Her death scene was scenery-chewing in the best way -- she let out a primal scream as her body contorted with pain. Her voice however is still definitely a soprano and she didn't have the low notes for the role -- sometimes they were little more than inaudible growls. But she's such a treasurable artist and it's always great to see her onstage.

Pieczonka and Cargill, photo @ Ken Howard
Adrienne Pieczonka (Mme. Lidoine) has the opposite problem -- her voice is huge and magnificent and cuts through the orchestra. This is a grade A voice. Her acting however was rather generalized and she lacked the moral authority to be believable as the fearless leader of the Carmelites into martyrdom.

Karen Cargill (Mother Marie) exuded an outwardly kindly persona and has a large, powerful mezzo. I do wish her timbre was darker and thus more of a contrast with the four other major female singers onstage. I had the same complaint about her Erda -- one simply wishes for a darker, plummier sound than Cargill could provide. Mother Marie is also the one character who is manipulative and cowardly, and Cargill didn't explore that side of her character as much.

Erin Morley, photo @ Ken Howard
Erin Morley as the other junior nun Sister Constance was exquisite. Her high, light soprano sounded heavenly as it soared above the orchestra and she had so much charm that she provided the only moments of humor in this otherwise relentlessly grim opera. Her silvery, celestial voice as she walked to her death was chilling -- a reminder of how young some of the sisters were.

The is such a female-dominated opera that the male voices are often forgotten about. And so it was tonight -Jean-François Lapointe (Marquis de la Force), David Portillo (Chevalier de la Force), Tony Stevenson (Chaplain) and Patrick Carfizzi (Jailer) were all fine but not memorable. Donald Palumbo's chorus sounded magnificent.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin led a decent performance from the pit, although he has a few tendencies that are troubling. One is his tendency to overpower the singers with the huge orchestra. Another is his way of leading the orchestra in a very logical, timely fashion (for once the running times were on-the-minute accurate) without contrasting the different moods and rhythms in Poulenc's score for maximum impact. And I don't know whether this is due to a lack of rehearsal or what but the singers' march through the black door did not coordinate perfectly with the famous guillotine slices in the final moments of the opera.

Dexter's production in the final moments, photo @ Ken Howard
John Dexter's classic 1977 production doesn't look at all old-fashioned. Its clean, uncluttered aesthetic (the unit set being a platform in the shape of a cross) and straightforward direction make it possible for one to go into this work blind and yet understand everything that was happening onstage. The final moments were stunning -- the sisters sang "Salve Regina" as they walked through the black doors to their death as the guillotine slicing sound (actually an amplified paper cutter) was made.

This cast is not perfect, but if you buy a ticket you will not be disappointed. Poulenc's rich, melodious score makes it the  perfect 20th century opera for opera lovers who don't like 20th century opera. The fact that this is based on a true story only makes it more devastating. What was moving in 1794 is still moving in 2019. It's always inspiring to see people who were willing to die rather than sacrifice their beliefs and principles.


  1. I generally agree. While Leonard has improved since the last time around, her voice simply does not convey fragility. Ewing, von Stade, and the young Racette were memorable because they were able to show the transformation in the character. While Nezet Seguin drowned the singers out in the first half, I thought the second half was near perfect and he built to the drama to a great climax. I thought that Pieczonka created a wonderful character: warm, motherly, stable, ultimately courageous and, other than a few harsh top notes, sang wonderfully. All of these qualities were in sharp contrast to Mattila's harrowing performance. Perhaps I am being generous to her, but I thought that the vocal weaknesses were on purpose, integral to her portrayal of a dying woman. (At some point, I wondered what Leonie Rysanek would have done with that part -- but that's another issue.) On the other hand, I thought that Cargill failed to create the other character that stands in contrast to Mme. Lidoine. Mere Marie is a religious zealot and extremely ambitious. Cargill failed on both counts. In my memory, Mignon Dunn was perfection in that part. Rigid body language combined with a voice that could go seamlessly from top to bottom. Cargill was adequate in a cast filled women who are great singing actresses. Morley was perfection in a role that sometimes seems easy and foolproof but that really requires great skill. I disagree with you about Portillo. He sang and acted like a stock operatic tenor. All in all, it was a great night. The Dexter production is older than the Zeffirelli Boheme and Turandot productions and it rarely is n repertory. Nevertheless, it's still vastly superior as theater and the Met has been able to keep it in better shape. Not one person on stage seems to be sleepwalking through her or his part. What a great night!

    1. Ken I wonder what Stephanie Blythe could do with Mother Marie. She is so wonderful at conveying a terrifying sternness.
      As for the Dexter production I agree -- over 41 years old and still looks so fresh. I also think this is one of those operas that demands so much out of its singers that it's impossible to sleepwalk through the opera. I have heard that some singers after the opera have a hard time decompressing, the experience is so intense.

      While we're fantasy casting I wonder what Maria Callas could have done with Mme. Lidoine.

  2. Note: the content of the blog was changed because of some complaints. The original final sentence read: "In today's world when people like William Barr and Sarah Huckabee Sanders brazenly lie and make excuses for the inexcuable it's inspiring to see women who were willing to die rather than sacrifice their beliefs and principles."

  3. Thank you so much....very well written, a pity I couldn't see this performance.

  4. I think you're exactly on point in that comment. Cassandra and the Trojan women are closer to the Carmelites. Oddly, I thought about Jonestown last night. Joining a cult and drinking the Kool-Aid is far from Poulenc's intentions but if you're a non-believer like me, the behavior isn't so different.

    1. Well one way the libretto sidesteps this "belief or fanaticism" issue is that it makes it seem as if the Carmelites were going to be arrested and executed anyway. Their only choice was whether they would walk towards that guillotine together and proud of their identity, or not.


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