Sunday, May 1, 2011

Review: "Dialogues of the Carmelites" at Pittsburgh Opera Sunday 1st May 2011

Pittsburgh Opera offers a superbly performed version of Francis Poulenc and Emmet Lavery’s opera Dialogues of the Carmelites enriched by exceptional singing of several principal roles, nearly impeccable playing by the orchestra led by Jean-Luc Tingaud and dynamic staging by Eric Einhorn.

This work may come as a surprise to people who have never seen or heard it, among which I am one. Although generally known as a story based on true events during the French Revolution and mostly about a group of nuns sent to the guillotine, it actually focuses on a young woman from a noble family, Blanche de la Force and her fearful uncertainties about her own life and what she should do with it, seeking significance as a nun. Much of the opera, in fact, consists of dialogues between her and among women in the Carmelite order about metaphysical and philosophical concepts of spirituality and sacrifice. But it also ultimately focuses on the tragic, brutal end to the lives of those innocent women. During the French Revolution, the Catholic Church, its priests and nuns were seen as extensions of the old royal, exploitative system and therefore a threat to the political new order.

Poulenc wrote much magnificently orchestrated, gorgeous music to amplify the story, the best of it appearing in the second part rather than in the first. In fact, during the first part, which sets up later events, the score sounds almost too dramatic for developments focusing on humility and modesty. But the nuns’ exquisite a capella passages in the second act, appropriate to their unadorned existence, have supreme, everlasting beauty.

The sets from Calgary Opera also deeply add to the sense the fragility and stark simplicity of the nuns’ convent life, only occasionally brightened by slashes of light. Director Einhorn expertly keeps the stage movements consistent with such elemental settings, often clustering the nuns together in clearly isolated, vulnerable groups. And his powerful choice for how the story ends can shake you and move you to tears.

Amanda Majeski in the main role of Blanche sings with memorable beauty as do Shannon Kessler Dooley as another novice Sister Constance, and Elizabeth Bishop as Mother Marie.

Unfortunately the Pittsburgh Opera program book gives readers no background information about Francis Poulenc, whose name and work still is too under-rated and overlooked, unlike the creators of the more standard opera repertory which the company usually offers. He was born in 1899. Writing many jocular, friendly scores up to the age of 39, he then took a new direction, rediscovering the Catholic faith in which he had been born, writing a large number of sacred works, including much liturgical vocal music. At about age 58, six years before his death, Dialogues of the Carmelites made its debut, the second of his only three operas.

The program book also says nothing about co-librettist Emmet Lavery whose name is even less known. He was a French playwright born just a few years after Poulenc, sometimes writing plays about priests as well as writing scripts for movies and television programs as far back as 1942.

Consider this performance a stirring and powerful revelation.

Pittsburgh Opera’s production of Dialogues of the Carmelites continues through May 8th at Benedum Center, downtown. Info and tickets at 412/ 456-6666 or

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