The Opera Institute at the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music of California State University, Long Beach presented Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites April 12-14, which sizzled with dramatic intensity and shining potential from the student performers – some of whom might and should pursue vocal careers. And input from LA Opera Stage Director Eli Villanueva gave the production a sense of professionalism and atmospheric mystery. Alternating casts were offered so this impression is from the April 14 afternoon performance.
The opera has a feel of a tragedy waiting to happen in its story and outcome. It is believed that the French Revolution began with the storming of the Bastille to bring down unsatisfactory aspects of the ancient regime and ended about ten years later when the Napoleonic era took hold. During this period, the so-called Reign of Terror often targeted the aristocracy and religious. Dialogues of the Carmelites represents a fictionalized account of how the Martyrs of Compiegne, a Carmelite order of nuns were guillotined in Paris around 1792 for their sacred beliefs.
If you thought the Game of Thrones was abstract, this opera has elements of the bizarre which provided some gripping and poignantly conceived scenes that were performed by a strong principal cast that included: Saane Halaholo (Sister Blanche de la Force), Mariah Rae Maglalang (Sister Constance), Courtney Ankerfelt (First Prioress) and Malek Sammour (Marquis de la Force). Notable collaboration was provided by Madeleine Adragna (Mother Marie) and Emily Bosetti (New Prioress). For example:
In the second act’s final scene, the Carmelites fulfill their vow of martyrdom by singing the liturgical hymn Salve Regina and as each raise their arms a big boom is heard which signifies the blade has come down and will continue until all have been silenced. As each voice is diminished the singers backstep with head and hair tilted forward into the back of the stage. During this and other moments, David Zahacewski’s lighting did much to outline cast members and add silky illumination to a shadowy hue that lingered throughout – which served as a kind of leitmotif to the bittersweet story. Costumes by Paula Higgins, ranging from religious habits to street clothes (the nuns were forced to wear secular garb) added authenticity and an imaginative touch when bringing novella to stage.
Another chilling moment occurs at the end of the first act when the First Prioress is lying in bed and about to expire – but not before she unleashes an over the top commentary about how she is forsaken by human and divine intervention. Kudos to Ankerfelt’s gripping portrayal and also to Maglalang and Halaholo for delivering their roles with lots of conviction, technical clarity, enunciation and a keener sense of projection throughout – elements that some other cast members might incorporate, especially when singing pianissimo passages or in a lower register.
Poulenc not only wrote the riveting score but also the libretto, which is based on an unfilmed screenplay by Georges Bernanos that was inspired by a story of Gertrud von Le Fort. The work premiered at La Scala in 1957 and has remained a staple of operatic repertoire since that time – and will be shown at next month’s Metropolitan Opera HD theater broadcast.
The rather austere story is not easy to digest, yet the set, designed by Yee Eun Nam (her work includes Sweat at the Mark Taper Forum and Hansel and Gretel at the Miami Music Festival) transformed the drab University Theatre stage into a convent or prison by using ergonomic backdrops that gave each scene a look of stark and clean realism – not to mention efficiency when changes are needed.
Poulenc’s orchestrated score was astutely conducted by David Anglin, CSULB’s Opera Institute Director and stylishly played in a two piano version by Brian Farrell and Gukhui Han – who provided unwavering and well-balanced support to Poulenc’s quasi-effervescent, quasi-melancholic music.
In the program booklet, David Anglin writes, “Carmelites has turned out to be an excellent fit: it suits these particular singers vocally and it has caused us all to rise to its many challenges – musical, emotional, and dramatic.” This production achieved all three of these criteria.