Dialogues of the Carmélites - A Good Opera Habit


Dialogues opening, photo @ Marty Sohl
Dialogues des Carmélites made one of its fairly infrequent returns to the Met in the classic John Dexter production. As a rule, it's always a good to watch Dialogues whenever you get the opportunity. Poulenc's opera has a way of bringing out the best in both singers and audiences. There's no showboating, there's no silly focus on high notes, it's just one of the purest, most compelling opera dramas ever created.

My schedule kept getting in the way of seeing this latest revival, until today when I could finally make it to the final performance. Overall, it's one of the best things I've seen at the Met this season. It wasn't a perfect performance, and there was an unfortunate performance from one of the leads. But the impact of this opera was undiminished.

Constance and Blanche, photo @ Marty Sohl
The standout performance for me was Sabine Devielhe as Constance. This was my first time hearing Devielhe live, but I have seen videos of her in Lakme and Ophelia. She did not disappoint. The French soprano's voice is not large, but it is clear, bell-like, and she's adorable to watch. Constance's chatter was endearing rather than irritating. Her bond with Blanche seemed organic and not just "opera chemistry." 

Ailyn Pérez was cast seemingly against type as the neurotic Blanche. Pérez is more known for her earthy warmth. She's been branching out though -- last season she was the introverted Tatiana. She was lovely as Blanche. Sometimes her lower voice could be hard to hear, but Pérez was sincere, with a top that soared. She conveyed more inner conflict than Isabel Leonard, the Blanche in the last revival.

Croissy and Marie, photo @ Marty Sohl
Alice Coote (Madame de Croissy) was very different from Karita Mattila, the Croissy I saw in 2019. Coote doesn't have the scenery chewing abilities of Mattila. However, the role is much more simpatico to Coote's warm mezzo than Mattila's aged soprano. What were mere croaks by Mattila was really sung by Coote. Coote's long, agonizing death scene was genuinely moving.

Jamie Barton (Mother Marie) had plenty of voice. Her voice is rich, voluminous, and sound pours out of her like butter. Unfortunately, she's also dramatically somewhat placid. Marie is the opera's most ambiguous character. She's stern and a religious fanatic, but she's also in the end extremely selfish and self-serving. Barton doesn't project any of that ambiguity ... or anything at all, really. I wish Jamie Barton's vocal refulgence could be matched with any sort of dramatic temperament.

Lidione, photo @ Marty Sohl
The only truly bad performance of the afternoon came from Christine Goerke (Lidione). There's no nice way to say it -- Goerke's voice has deteriorated beyond recognition. Her once rich, organ-like dramatic soprano now sounds hollow (if still loud), with a distinct wobble. She opened her mouth and I couldn't believe this was her voice. She sounded like an aged comprimario. It's too bad, because her portrayal of Lidione was dramatically very effective. Goerke is a very warm performer, and you understood why Lidione engendered such loyalty that her entire convent was willing to follow her to the guillotine. Her voice is just no longer there. I dread her Ortrud in March.

Laurent Naouri (Marquis) is an effective character singer, although his voice is also not really there anymore. Piotr Buszewski had a handsome if somewhat generic tenor. Bertrand de Billy took a rather leisurely approach to the score. I would have preferred a more propulsive approach. I was also sitting under the famous Met overhang in the first half of the opera, and some of the voices sounded drowned out. It was much better in the second half when I found a seat out of the overhang.

I was heartened to see that the orchestra looked nearly sold-out, and the upper rings also seemed well-populated. There was a group of real-life nuns attending. This is an opera that always makes its impact. I'm not religious in any way, but I find the sincere expressions of faith in this opera to be deeply moving. The final scene with the guillotines descending, one by one, is wrenching. It's simply good opera habit to see this whenever possible, pun intended.


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