Apr 292012

What is a Judicial Review? It is a fresh approach to creating a conversational, critical space about the arts and culture. This is our seventh session, this time a discussion about the Boston University School of Fine Arts production of Francis Poulenc’s opera “Dialogues of the Carmelites”, which raises issues about faith and resistance.

Dialogues of the Carmelites. Score by Francis Poulenc. Libretto by Georges Bernanos. Staged by the Boston University College of Fine Arts. Conducted by William Lumpkin. Stage directed by Sharon Daniels. Featuring singers from the BU School of Music Opera Institute and Vocal Performance degree candidates and the BU Chamber Orchestra. Production, scenic, costume, lighting design, build and run-crew by students in the School of Theatre. Assisted in all areas by the Huntington Theatre Company and faculty. At Boston University Theatre, April 19–22.

Introduction by Anthony J. Palmer, Guest Editor

Truth exists. Only lies are invented.” — Georges Braque

Art is a lie that brings us nearer to the truth.” — Pablo Picasso

Marie of the Incarnation, a sister of the Order of Carmel in Compiègne, was one of the few who survived the “reign of terror” in the fateful year of 1792 in France in the revolution. Her subsequent journals cloistered her memories until they were discovered by Gertrude von la Forte, who drew on the events for her novel, The Last on the Scaffold. Georges Bernanos, a French Catholic living in exile in Brazil and dying of cancer, was fascinated by the tale of faith and resistance and used it as the basis for a play. The latter material served as the source for Bernanos’s libretto for Francis Poulenc’s 1957 opera Dialogues of the Carmelites.

A story that examines real life events in its transposition from memoir through novel through drama through opera is a long one, and somewhere along the way was the truth lost, or did it emerge more powerfully despite (or because of) minor adaptations? In all of the story’s versions, the characters vibrate with authenticity because historical reality is preserved: in 1792 it was decreed by the Committee of Public Safety that anyone who appeared to oppose the Revolution was sentenced to die by the guillotine. In all, including the 14 sisters of the Carmelite and two lay sisters, 15,000 people received the shock of the blade during that fateful summer.

Born in tragedy and growing up in fear, Blanche de la Force, daughter of the Marquis de la Force, decided to join the sisters in Compiègne to devote her life to God as Blanche of the Agony of Christ. The sisters were eventually condemned to death because of their refusal to abandon their beliefs and, having met in secret in violation of the rulers’ orders, were led to the guillotine on July 17, 1792. They could have escaped condemnation but, in keeping with their dedication to their Carmelite vows, chose martyrdom instead.

A scene from DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES. Photo: Oshin Gregorian

The deviation from these facts occurs because of the need to adapt to the musical stage. The old Prioress, Henriette de Croissy, for example, did not die at the cloister but went to her death with her sisters. Her death at the monastery during the opera is much more dramatic. Poulenc and Bernanos also made the choice to have the new prioress lead the procession to the guillotine rather than going last as was historically true. The hymn sung in the opera as they trudge up the scaffold, Salve Regina, replaced Veni Creator Spiritus, the actual hymn that silenced the town folk as they watched the travesty of justice. Minor changes like these do not detract from the central truth of the opera and history: it took over a decade to quell the chaos of the Revolution for some kind of order to be restored. Napoleon took the helm as “first consul” in 1799.

So what is the lie, and what is the truth? No doubt Poulenc and Bernanos had the atrocities before and after World War II in mind, including the Stalinist purges that killed an estimated 80 million. The opera’s subject matter gives us plenty to ponder, particularly in light of recent instances of fanaticism around the globe.

Thus a review of Dialogues of the Carmelites as performed on the Boston University Huntington stage by the BU Opera Institute requires much more than a quick review. The opera is too rich in a variety of ways that can be looked at objectively and discussed. That is what Arts Fuse editor Bill Marx had in mind when he asked me to provide a Judicial Review of the production, a multi-faceted discussion that would draw on the insight and judgment of critics, scholars, and opera lovers in ways that would generate a rich dialogue about the issues raised by it and faceted discussion.

Three reviews should generate a lively kick-off for the discussion. Richard Bunbury serves as our operatic critic; Hilary Poriss serves as the scholar; Patrick Raleigh serves as a representative of the public, an opera lover. One or more of the artists who worked on the opera production will respond to the commentaries soon.

I want to suggest several angles from which the production may be viewed. In no order of priority, one can examine the historical context. Another might be the depth of the story in terms of the various factions acting at the time. What led the revolutionaries to destroy even religious people and churches? Was the church too supportive of the ruling regime? Is there a parallel to that kind of complicity today?

How effective were Francis Poulenc and Bernanos in translating the story to the stage? One could answer this by considering music in isolation from the libretto. How did the stage setting and costumes contribute to the flow of the action?

I think you get the idea. Craft your criteria and evaluation, then share your reactions with the Arts Fuse panel and readers. We look forward to a lively and stimulating exchange of ideas.

Majority Opinion: The panel found the Boston University production of the Poulenc opera to be first rate on all levels—one judge going so far as to write that “it has been a long time since [she has] enjoyed an opera production this much.” The relevance of the piece’s examination of religion and oppression was also noted.

Minority Opinion: One of the judges found the heralded final scene disappointing, going on to raise the larger issue of whether an increasingly secularized society can understand the intense, faith-based issues (particularly the spiritual value of suffering) raised by the story. Also, issues were raised about the, at the time, sparse use of English surtitles.

— Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse

Judge #1

Richard Bunbury

Since Phyllis Curtin founded BU’s Opera Institute in 1987, it has become a hothouse of vocal and dramatic talent, especially under the directorship since 1997 of former diva Sharon Daniels. The recent production of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites not only showcased School of Music rising stars but demonstrated an exceptional theatrical insight into Poulenc’s vision of the world of the French Revolution as seen through the eyes of cloistered nuns.

Music director William Lumpkin’s able baton maintained supple and precise control of the pit and the stage, expertly capturing the expressiveness of Poulenc’s phrases. The inner drama was only heightened by the expert chiaroscuro of the scenic and lighting design executed by BU’s School of Theatre. Pervasive use of the scrim served both as atmospheric backdrop and a powerful metaphor for viewing life through a veil. The quality of the stagecraft approached the level of professional productions.

Francis Poulenc saw Georges Bernanos’s drama in the early 1950s and began working on the opera not long after. Its conflicted attitude toward Catholicism was apparently deeply felt because it mirrored Bernanos’s own inner struggles with religion, rebellion, and loss. The narrative of the ill-fated Carmelites had been first recorded by one of the nuns who escaped the guillotine. Her early-nineteenth-century memoirs became the novel Die letzte am Schafott (The Last on the Scaffold) by Gertrude von le Fort in 1931, then a discarded cinematic scenario a decade later, followed by Bernanos’s screenplay.

The screenplay’s sometimes delicate, sometimes tumultuous treatment of character and emotion form the dramaturgical basis of the opera, which consists of a number of short scenes. It demanded of Poulenc a terse, syllabic vocal writing, which, felicitously, lends itself to translation. This performance used musicologist Joseph (not John, as it states in the program) Machlis’s well-known version in English and played an important part communicating the immediacy and understandability of this two-and-a-half-hour opera with an almost entirely female cast.

The principal characters in Saturday evening’s performance did not disappoint.They were well matched in terms of vocal and dramatic ability. Adrian Smith’s rich baritone made one wish that the Marquis de la Force had more time on stage. Tenor John Irvin as his son, the Chevalier de la Force, is in possession of a deliciously lyrical sound and commanding presence. The central figure of the drama is the Marquis’s daughter, who becomes Sr. Blanche of the Agony of Christ. It was sung by Celeste Fraser, whose bright and focused soprano complemented her temperamental character and prevailed over the occasional dynamic excesses of the orchestra. The role of Mother Marie was made particularly memorable by Lauren Ashley Lyles’s exquisite mezzo.

A scene from DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES. Photo: Oshin Gregorian

The minor roles and chorus of Carmelites, officers, and townspeople were impressively acted, considering their youth and relative inexperience. Especially well done were the choruses, Ave Maria and Ave Verum Corpus. Tiffany Chang’s re-orchestration seemed apparent to me only in the disappointing final scene, when the daughters of Carmel process dutifully toward the scaffold. The Salve Regina is one of the most haunting of all choral numbers in opera, and my memory is that it makes use of a powerful chorus of women singing a cappella until the guillotine silences the last one. Perhaps it was the orchestration, the less-than-favorable stage acoustics, or the youth of the voices that failed to move. Or perhaps it is because I am idealizing the finales of two other local productions, one mounted by the Boston Opera Collaborative a few years ago and another by the Boston Conservatory about 35 years ago. In both I remember that the final scene was an absolute tour de force.

This last point leads me to talk about audience reception of the piece. Perhaps the opera has lost its appeal because the notion of religious martyrdom has become tainted in our post-9/11 consciousness. Given the complexity of the opera’s historical and theological context, it makes me wonder to what extent the audience at these performances, made up mostly of non-operagoers, are touched or challenged by it. The themes and subtexts are so profoundly a particular kind of Catholicism immersed in Thomas à Kempis’s theology of suffering that it may be too distant for contemporary, secularized audiences. Saturday night’s audience was less than enthusiastic. For me and the friends I brought, Dialogues of the Carmelites opened a door to a world that was immediately understandable, which made the performance such a riveting experience.

Richard Bunbury is a lecturer in Music Education and Musicology at Boston University, having also served as an interim chair of the Department of Musicology and Ethnomusicology. His teaching experiences also include 10 years teaching at the Boston Conservatory and a number of years as a K-12 music teacher.

He has presented at professional conferences, and his articles appear in several journals and standard reference works including New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and New Grove Dictionary of American Music. A career organist and choral conductor too, his most recent work is as organ soloist on the album Unchanging Love: Brass and Organ Music of Larry Thomas Bell (Albany Records).

Judge #2

Hilary Poriss

Due to a scheduling snafu, I was able to attend only the first act on Thursday night, and so I returned on Sunday afternoon to watch the remaining two acts. I was glad that I did because I was able to witness both casts, allowing me to hear almost every performer who had a leading role (the important exceptions were Jonathan Cole as the Marquis de la Force and Vera Savage as Madame de Croissy, both of whom appeared in Sunday’s performance and only in the first act).

Before discussing any details, I would like to make a disclosure: I am not a critic and in fact this is the first review of a live production I have ever written. I am, however, an opera scholar and an avid fan. I have witnessed hundreds of performances over two—or, ahem, going on three—decades in dozens of cities, and I can honestly say that this production of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites ranks among the top five performances I have ever seen.

Coming into the theater on a dreary, cold, and very rainy Sunday afternoon to watch the second and third acts, I was down in the dumps with a severe case of end-of-the-semester blues, but I emerged from the Boston University Huntington Theater completely restored, a function of Poulenc’s music and the stellar performances by the students at the Boston University Opera Institute and Chamber Orchestra.

Within the context of Poulenc’s oeuvre, the opera itself is surprising, a deeply serious piece by a composer whose work for theater had previously occupied the realms of the comic and the absurd. With Dialogues, Poulenc explored a narrative of spirituality and strength marking a new direction in his career.

Situated at the center of the plot is Blanche, a young woman terrified of death. She turns to the convent in a time of peace and dies in a time of turmoil at the hands of French revolutionaries. While living at the convent, she befriends one of the youngest nuns, Constance, whose playfulness and confidence both attracts Blanche and stirs her envy. Constance’s dream (that she and Blanche will die together) repulses her new friend, ultimately compelling Blanche to run from the convent where the sisters have taken a vow of martyrdom.

After Blanche departs, the others are imprisoned, accused of seditious activities, and condemned to death. The highpoint of the opera occurs at its conclusion when the 15 sisters gather at the foot of the guillotine and sing a prayer, Salve Regina, to a stunningly simple and beautiful melody. As they do so, they each step stoically to their death, one-by-one, creating a diminishing aural affect that is as striking as it is tragic. Blanche arrives to be martyred just in time for Constance—the last in line—to understand that she will die alongside her friend.

A scene from DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES. Photo: Oshin Gregorian.

Among the performances, there were many that stood out as particularly stunning. Both women who sang the role of Blanche (Celeste Fraser and Ruth Hartt) were marvelous, deftly executing the emotional extremes that the imbalanced Blanche traverses throughout the opera, particularly in the middle of the third act when Blanche hits “rock bottom.”

After witnessing her father’s execution, Blanche becomes a servant in her childhood home. Mother Marie pays her a visit, hoping to convince Blanche to return with her, but what she finds instead is a woman on the verge of hysterics, an emotion Poulenc makes vivid with his spiky, high melodic lines. Hartt—who I saw in this act—traversed this musical material seamlessly, conveying a sense of deep and true panic.

Similarly, both Sonja Krenek and Kristin Young, as Constance, were terrific. The smile that Young turned to Blanche in the last scene, knowing that her friend had arrived, was heartbreakingly perfect. Although Madame de Croissy appears only in the first act, hers is the most memorable character in the opera, her “bad” death dominating the end of the first act and hovering like a shadow over the rest of the opera. Amanda Tarver filled the role dramatically, leaving the audience breathless during her terrified and terrifying passing.

This is an opera dominated by women, but there are a few key male roles that were performed beautifully. Adrian Smith’s performance as the Marquis de la Force was particularly enjoyable, as was Omar Najmi’s as the Father Confessor.

Sharon Daniels’s staging was extremely effective. The simple design consisting of stark columns against a gray background perfectly reflects the somber nature of the narrative. Many of the choreographed gestures, moreover, were powerful. In act II, scene 3, for instance, the nuns sit shoulder-to-shoulder in three rows of five, with Blanche at one end of the first row. Her lack of conviction in herself and the life she has chosen is illustrated nicely by her failure to partake in the actions of the others: when they all bow down at the waist, she remains upright; when they all turn suddenly to the left to watch the new Prioress as she speaks, Blanche’s head remains faced stubbornly forward.

In closing, it has been a long time since I have enjoyed an opera production this much. My only regret is that its run has concluded.

Hilary Poriss is an associate professor of music at Northeastern University. She received her B.A. from Bates College and her M.A. and Ph.D. in music history from the University of Chicago. Her primary research interests are in the areas of Italian opera, performance practice, diva culture, and the aesthetics of nineteenth-century musical culture. She is the author of Changing the Score: Arias, Prima Donnas, and the Authority of Performance (Oxford University Press, 2009) and the co-editor of Fashions and Legacies of Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera (Cambridge University Press, 2010). Her articles and reviews have been published in 19th-Century Music, Cambridge Opera Journal, Nineteenth-Century Music Review, Verdi Forum, Journal of British Studies, and other musicological books and journals.

Judge #3

Patrick Raleigh

Unlike other contributors to this page, I bring no professional skills in music, theater, or criticism. Rather, I come as one of the anonymous members of the audience, drawn to experience opera. We come to be engulfed in color, motion, rhythm, costumes, settings, and (of course) glorious music—to savor all together, not to analyze in little pieces. Disbelief happily suspended, an opera lover comes to live a little while in another era, place, or culture, with living people who are more charming, more passionate, funnier, braver, or more evil than anyone in our pale daily lives—and miraculously, they can sing.

I did not know what to expect in an academic production, but all of the above was what I hoped for, and my experience was just about everything I could have wished. There were moving exchanges, images and moods created that came back hauntingly long after the final curtain.There were memorable performances: as the Prioress of the convent, Vera Savage’s death scene was stunning, and Kristin Young’s effervescent interpretation of Sister Constance injected warmth in the character while also maintaining continuity of her approach from scene to scene.

Breakdowns in communicating from stage to audience were, ironically in a piece about Dialogues, difficulties in hearing or understanding dialogue. Primarily to advance the plot, some passages were spoken, others sung as recitatives, some with, others without, accompaniment, and the former suffering the most from being overwhelmed by the orchestra. Two screens displayed lines from the libretto in sync with the action on stage, helpfully some of the time but with a curious disconnect: many fairly extended passages went by with no visual assist. It was doubly frustrating to not understand and, expecting help, to look up and find a blank screen.

Language seemed to me the weakest link in this production, through no fault of the cast or direction. It’s fine to respect Poulenc’s dictum to stage the opera in the language of the country where it is being performed but to cram the singing into the rigid mold of the text, which was determined to stick close to the French original, was unsatisfying. As a French major (we read Georges Bernanos in class) who lived in France and Belgium, I could hear behind the translation the sound of French literary and philosophical constructions of the times. The effort to render precisely the sense of the original crushed the tone and rhythms; it must have been difficult to sing.

A scene from DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES. Photo: Oshin Gregorian

In contrast, the music—played by an orchestra sounding superb to my ears—was a revelation. I came in with an appreciation of Poulenc as a composer of music that was roughly playful, even raucous—great fun, nevertheless. Some music in this score is harsh, in keeping with the violence and emotions of the Revolution. But many other instrumental passages were so lyrical, beautiful, and penetrating that I’ve revised completely Poulenc’s place in my Pantheon.

Sets were minimal (it doesn’t make sense to build an onstage Conciergerie for four performances), but the stark simplicity worked perfectly to convey the somber tone of the times: four columns and an altar created the convent; a wall of iron bars sheltered the nuns in the convent from the outside world and then confined them after they were condemned. The final scene drew even more power from set’s starkness, with a stage empty but for wooden steps leading to the off-stage guillotine, the back of the stage lit a brilliant blood red. A small group of soldiers, officials, and gawkers watch the nuns deliberately, excruciatingly, cross to the steps and disappear, the spectators listening for the final sound of the falling blade.

This performance of a mid-twentieth-century opera carries universal truths that are particularly relevant today: a display of innocents caught up and crushed in the collision of the secular and the religious. There surely are echoes of the Reign of Terror in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, sectarian conflict throughout the Mid-East, and wars in Africa. Our time could use more of this work’s combination of sorrow and a tiny spark of hope.

Patrick Raleigh graduated from Dartmouth with a B.A. in French language and literature; studies included an undergraduate trimester at the Université de Caen and a year after graduation in independent study in Paris art académies (Julian, de la Grande Chaumière, and Ecole du Louvre. Following service in the USAF, Patrick and his wife moved to Europe, residing through the 1970s in Spain, the Netherlands, and Belgium where he wrote advertising and promotion materials, primarily for technology companies.


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  10 Responses to “Judicial Review # 7: Critical Perspectives on “Dialogues of the Carmelites””

Comments (10)
  1. Let me start by saying that having sung in this production Dialogues of the Carmelites, I cannot hope to be objective in my opinions about the caliber of its design or the performance of its singers and players. For that reason amongst others, I will not even attempt to discuss them. I will instead share an observation about the composition itself that drew me to the piece in the first place and continued to inspire me throughout the duration of our run.

    Those critics who have already reviewed this opera have described it in a number of ways; hopeful, powerful, tragic, timely. I agree with each of these, but there is one aspect of this work which allows it to be all of those, and yet has heretofore been overlooked. This is the fact that above all else, Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, is approachable. He made it so through several means, some of which have already been mentioned, such as his stipulation that it be performed in the native language of the country in which it is sung and the vibrant realism of its characters. I would add to these the heavy influence of jazz and other vernacular music, repetition of motives, and reliance on recitative and brief lyricism rather than extended arias throughout his work. In these ways, Dialogue of the Carmelites serves as a bridge between opera and other popular musical forms, particularly musical theater, making it more palatable to and appreciable by a larger audience.

    This approachability serves a dual purpose. On the one hand, it creates a gateway for those interested in opera. This was certainly the case for our production. I spoke with many people after the performances, and was impressed by the number of those who said that this was their first opera experience, but who were determined that it would not be their last. However, the approachable nature serves a second, and in my opinion, far greater purpose. This is that it insures that the story of the Martyrs of Compiegne, a story that is very relevant to our and all times, continues to reach and emotionally impact a large audience. This is the duty which falls upon all those who perform this piece, and I for one was grateful that Poulenc had already done so much of the work for us.

    Justin Kenney is a sophomore in the Undergraduate Voice Program at Boston University.

  2. I would like to first say thank you to the three reviewers for putting in the time and effort to write such thoughtful and positive reviews of the production. It is a great honor to have been able to be a part of a production that was equally powerful for the audience and performers alike. I can honestly say that despite the many hours of rehearsal for this production, it still was just as moving to me each time we performed it.

    As thankful as I am for the overwhelmingly positive reviews, I understand that at least two of the reviews cited issues with the production. My goal will be to respond to these critiques from the perspective of having performed in the opera.

    Let me first respond to the fact that Dr. Richard Bunbury found the finale to be disappointing. While I absolutely respect his opinion, I find it difficult to respond to the criticism because he did not mention a specific thing about the end that he found disappointing. Due to the fact that I have not listened to many recordings of the piece, I can’t really compare Tiffany Chang’s re-orchestration to the original orchestration. Having said that, I believe the orchestra played the music with great dramatic and emotional intent, much to the credit of both the talent of the players and the impassioned conducting from Maestro Lumpkin.

    Dr. Bunbury also mentioned the youth of the performers and the effect that might have had on the finale not moving him as much as it could have. I think everyone who saw this production needed to keep in mind that none of us from the undergraduate to the opera institute students are “finished products.” This is why we are here at Boston University, studying intensely and thoroughly what it takes to be not just a great singer but also a fantastic musician and artist.

    I can say that, having the experience of being with this production from the beginning of the rehearsal process, each and every singer in the production, because of their commitment to the process, came a long way with respect to where we started and how we pulled it together. I felt that the sense in which the cast — both principals and chorus– came together as one dramatic unit is incredible. There was real and genuine dramatic commitment from every singer up on the stage. There were countless members of the chorus who were sobbing the second they left the stage after the finale because of the emotional impact of the scene. So, in response to Dr. Bunbury’s disappointment with the finale, perhaps it was not as polished as an all-professional production would have been, but every single person in the production committed 100% to the scene and were very focused on being able to radiate both the music and the emotions out to the audience.

    As to Dr. Bunbury’s feeling that the piece may not resonate with audience members in this day and age due to the highly religious nature of the piece, I personally feel that statement is not applicable to me. To my mind, while the opera focuses on religion and sacrificing your life for your god, the overlying message goes far beyond the realm of religion. What it all boils down to is the intolerance that people have towards one another and in the barbaric and evil ways in which we as humans express that intolerance.

    The guillotining of the Carmelite nuns was essentially about powerful people disapproving of another group and killing its members. It doesn’t have to be members of a religious group that are the victims of violence. This theme is prevalent in so many societies around the world, whether its Apartheid in Africa, the Holocaust, slavery, and it is even applicable to intolerance expressed in non-violent actions, whether it’s the tea party and Christian Fundamentalist intolerance for gay people, racism, as well as sexist attitudes in our society. This theme of intolerance is heartbreaking to me and that is the main theme I personally picked up from the opera and which makes it so moving.

    Patrick Raleigh mentioned in his review that he found the language on many levels to be an issue. I understand that it is always a sticky situation when an opera is translated from it’s original language to another language. I agree that the translation often sounds inauthentic. For example, English recordings of The Magic Flute drive me crazy. This is because when good composers write music for an opera, they have a feel for the language in mind when they are composing it.

    I would like to first mention that I have not seen this opera performed in French so I can’t compare the BU production to the French version. Even without that experience, I still feel that the English language translation of Dialogues doesn’t feel awkward because I believe that Poulenc knew from the beginning that he wanted the opera to be performed in the native language of where it was being performed. Therefore, he composed the music in such away that it could adapted into other languages.

    As far as the authenticity of the English, Mr. Raleigh and I are in slight disagreement. However, Mr. Raleigh’s complaint about the troubles with the clarity of the performers’ diction I find completely understandable. There are several things I would like to mention in regard to this. First, as I mentioned earlier, there is no singer in this production who is a finished product. Therefore the diction is not going to be perfect. I can say however that each singer worked extremely hard with making his or her diction clear and understandable. Having a minor role, I was at quite a few of the principal rehearsals and both the stage director and diction coach made diction a priority. Originally there were not going to be any subtitles because our school believes that having no subtitles for productions in English will force the singers to sing with precise diction.

    However, they decided to have subtitles with this opera because the orchestration is extremely heavy. Since we are all young singers, projecting without amplification over this orchestra was a challenge. But I have to commend every singer in the production for working so efficiently on their diction.

    In closing, I want to thank all three reviewers again for their thoughtful and very positive reviews. This is my first experience being in an opera and it was an incredible experience on many levels.I feel so blessed that I was able to have this opportunity to perform with such an extremely talented group of people. I hope that this is the beginning of many wonderful operatic experiences for me.

  3. As the historic aspects, plot, and impact of this opera have already been covered in significant depth, I’ll offer my opinion on the performance from the perspective of an audience member and student at Boston University.

    I attended the Sunday afternoon performance and came away wonderfully moved by the performance of my colleagues. With only a few exceptions, I was impressed by the vocalists. The moments or roles I found less impressive tended to be because of the portrayal of the character and not due to any technical fault of the performer, so I am perfectly willing to accept that there will be a range of opinions concerning this. The level of acting and musical conviction, especially among a cast comprised of young (many of the singers are undergraduates) was tremendous. The Mother Superior’s death in the first act and the finale were among some of the most moving scenes that I’ve ever witnessed.

    The orchestra, unfortunately, faced numerous problems. I had never heard this opera before, so I do not feel I have any basis for commenting on the merits or detractions of Ms. Chang’s orchestration. Regardless of difficulties presented in the music, the orchestra often sounded sloppy; missing entrances, lacking ensemble and color, and struggling with questionable intonation. Given the many fine musicians at BU, this music should not be out of reach in terms of playability.

    I found the staging to be highly effective, there was enough to contribute to the atmosphere of solemnity, fear, and isolation, but it was not so complex that it became a distraction. The final scene in particular continues to haunt me. In the past few days, I have begun to feel that an a cappella chorus would be more emotionally effective in the final scene, though the re-orchestration did not detract from the performance at the time.

    This was a wonderful performance, with few significant detractions, that Boston University and everyone involved should be quite proud of.

  4. As a member of the orchestra, I can’t comment on any of the visual aspects of the opera, and I’m sure that I’d have some kind of bias if I commented on the orchestra’s performance. However, there are some points brought up in the reviews I’d like to discuss a bit.

    In Dr. Bunbury’s review he said that he found the final scene disappointing, perhaps due to the re-orchestration. Having no previous exposure to this opera, I find it surprising that it could be any more moving, especially with such a small orchestra. I was almost moved to tears every time I played that final scene. Another thing I’d like to say is that during every performance, the orchestra was constantly struggling with playing quiet enough so that the singers could be heard during the final scene, this may have detracted from the effect in the audience, but in the pit it was still incredible.

    Another point brought up by Dr. Bunbury was about audience reception of the opera. Even though I’m a musician, I am by no means an opera enthusiast, nor do I know much about opera. I’m a violist. But the first time Maestro Lumpkin led the orchestra through it and told us what it was about, I immediately understood and felt a connection to the story, not just the music. I looked it up, I read about it, I got into it. All of my family and friends that came did the same thing, they were all very intrigued by the entire idea. I don’t think that a post-9/11 consciousness should affect anyone’s opinions on this opera and if it does then I’m completely shocked by that. Since The Passion of the Christ came out in 2004, it’s grossed over $600 million becoming one of the top grossing movies of all time and when you think about it, that’s just another story of religious martyrdom.

    I’m extremely pleased with my personal performance, and the entire cast/orchestra’s performance in this opera and I believe we did a great job communicating the pure emotion of the music to the audience. In closing, I’d like to echo Patrick Raleigh’s thoughts that this opera caries universal truths that are still relevant in the present day, and I hope that everyone has the chance to experience this incredible work in the same way I did.

  5. Let me begin by stating that I attended opening night meaning that I only saw one cast. So any comments I give are reflective of that performance and that Thursday night cast. Firstly, I would like to saw what a wonderful performance both the orchestra and cast gave. It is rare that I attend live operas and it was quite a treat to see such refined musicians. The acting and singing throughout the entire opera were truly stunning. Although I wish it had been performed with the original French text, the English rendition was lovely. I was deeply moved by the opera and believe that the musicians did a superb job.

    The point brought by Dr. Bunbury about the audience reception is an interesting one. I personally did not feel this way at all and found the messages of the opera to be incredibly profound and meaningful. I do agree that the audience was less than enthusiastic. Now Dr. Bunbury attended the concert on Saturday so there is possibly a trend related to the post-9/11 mind. That being said, I do not believe that the message of the opera was “die for religion,” so any reaction to that seems irrelevant. Jeff Strome brings up a great point about the massive sales of the film The Passion of the Christ. Ideally those who attended the opera were able to distance themselves for the secularized society in which we live in, and understand the message Poulenc was trying to convey.

    It is only fair to note the smaller orchestra, with its subsequent re-orchestration will not be as effective as a larger orchestra. Yet even with the reduced orchestra size, I thought the opera was truly wonderful and deeply moving. A huge congratulations to the BU orchestra musicians and singers, as well as to those who helped with its successful production!

  6. As a member of the orchestra, I feel that I cannot comment on the technical performance of the ensemble without bias. I also cannot comment on the set or the quality of the singer’s acting.

    However, I feel that my entirely aurally based experience of the opera gave me a very interesting perspective to discuss. I was incredibly impressed with the singers in both the quality of their singing and in their ability to express the mood of the character aurally. Also, I felt that Maestro Lumpkin did a magnificent job of holding the singers and the orchestra together. Like Jeff mentioned, I was disappointed to hear that Dr. Bunbury found the last act lackluster because it was indeed very moving from my seat in the pit. It is unfortunate that members of the audience did not get to experience the same intensity of emotion as the performers.

    I was very interested to read Dr. Bunbury’s thoughts about martyrdom and our perception of it following 9/11. I must confess that thoughts of 9/11 never entered my head when thinking about this opera. Rather, I thought that it might be the small number of the nuns which made the audience less absorbed. When researching the French revolution to give myself some background information before playing in the opera, I found myself thinking that not that many people (about 50,000) really died during the revolution. I was immediately horrified by my own callous reaction, but the fact remains that we as a society are more used to counting casualties of war in the millions. Therefore, the deaths of a few nuns (who quite possibly could have saved themselves) does not have the same emotional pull to a society which is used to thinking in terms of body counts, rather than the individual lives lost.

    I feel incredibly honored to have been in this production, which was made successful by the hard work on the part of everyone involved. It is very gratifying to read reviews and find that our work conveyed the opera convincingly enough to generate this much interest.

  7. I found the Thursday evening performance of this opera quite enjoyable to say the least. It’s always a pleasure to have the opportunity to listen to ‘good’ music, and even more so to hear it being performed by my peers. I thought that the performance was well prepared and made an impact on the audience.

    I absolutely loved watching and hearing the vocalists! They did a great job getting deeply involved in their roles and creating an emotional performance that could really strike the hearts of the audience members. The orchestra on the other hand had a few choice spots lacking the luster that the vocalists were putting out. Minor intonation issues and missed entrances took a bit away from the overall performance of the opera, however the the piece still made the emotional impact that it was intended to make on the audience.

    Overall, the performance was very well done. Members of the orchestra and of the vocalists deserve much recognition for the time they spent in preparation of this performance.

  8. I am very glad I made the choice to attend the Thursday night performance of Boston University’s Dialogue of the Carmelites. I found myself swept up by the moving story of the nuns and by Poulenc’s inspired music, which was all superbly portrayed by the well-rehearsed ensemble and cast.

    Not only was I impressed by the performers, but the stage setting and costume work was also very well thought out, adding another dimension to the performance. In particular, I found the set of the cathedral to be especially impressive. The Boston University Theater is not an impressively large space, yet the simple backdrop of the pillars, that seemed to be actually made of stone, and the flooring details managed to somehow make me feel as if I had stepped into a grand cathedral. The extra feature of the candles added a sense of sacred meditation to the scene and seemed to make the cathedral even more believable.

    The talent of all the vocalists was apparent throughout the entire work, and I was particularly enraptured by the thrilling capabilities of mezzo Lauren Lyles who played Mother Marie. Her voice was a solid force and carried itself into the audience with ease. In addition to the vocal talents of the cast, the acting was also exquisite. The scene with the death of Mother Superior was, as Hilary Poriss says in her review, a “terrified and terrifying passage,” which left me frozen on the edge of my seat.

    Although Maestro Lumpkin’s expressive musicality was exquisitely well thought out and clearly well-rehearsed, I was not consistently impressed by the pit orchestra. There were many beautiful moments, yet I was occasionally distracted by intonation issues. I know Poulenc tends to write with much dissonance, but I don’t think all of the dissonance I heard was intentional.

    Despite that one minor distraction, I have never enjoyed an opera as much as this one, and I applaud the cast and crew for their impressive work. I look forward to seeing more productions in the future.

  9. As someone who has not always had any sort of interest in opera, seeing productions that I am not at all familiar with is not generally an activity that I would be excited about. Dialogues of the Carmelites was no exception. I went to the opera on opening night to support my friends who were in the production, and I did not expect to enjoy it. However, I left the theater that evening having thoroughly enjoyed myself, and with the desire to see it again, which I did. This opera changed my outlook.

    I saw the same cast twice, and I did so on purpose. The performers on Thursday evening were so powerful and sang so beautifully that they made me need to hear them sing again. I was especially captivated by the vocals of John Irvin and Celeste Fraser, but the entire cast impressed me with their ability to move an audience with their voices. The performance on Thursday evening was, overall, much stronger than it was on Saturday evening, but both left me completely satisfied.

    The orchestra, I’m sorry to say, was quite out of tune for a great deal of the opera, but I was only distracted by this a couple of times, because I was so focused on what was happening onstage. The set looked beautiful, the staging was great, and the performers were captivating.

    I found the ending of the opera to be extremely effective, even if one or two of the nuns overdid it a bit. The sound of the guillotine gave me chills, and those chills stayed until the curtain fell.

    A huge congratulations to everyone who was involved in this production–it was an incredibly enjoyable and moving experience to have been able to see it.

  10. Since recently transferring to Boston University, this was the first opera I had seen performed by BU students. Needless to say, I was thrilled when I heard BU would be performing Dialogues of the Carmelites.

    The opera itself is a dark subject, and it takes a lot out of you to watch. I would like to address how impressed I was at the talent of the singers, as well as the power and emotion they brought to the performance. To agree with what Dr. Bunbury wrote, I thought the minor roles and chorus performed tremendously well, especially considering their youth. I had heard many of my classmates talking about their countless rehearsals and practicing, and I think it’s easy to say their hard work showed.

    I was particularly moved by the death of Mother Superior. I had seen this scene performed many times but found this performance outstanding. I would have to argue with Dr. Bunbury that I thought the finale was fantastic; it almost brought me to tears. I felt terrified, as if I were walking up to the guillotine with the sisters. The silence left afterwards is truly an experience I will never forget. I believe this may be because this was my first staged viewing of the opera, and I am looking at it with fresh eyes. Regardless, the focus and emotion to perform the final scene is intense, and everybody should be praised for it.

    Looking at the audience’s reaction, I do believe that this particular opera is hard to grasp in your college years. I was surprised to see some of my peers that appeared completely unmoved by the final scene. This may be because the opera is based around religion and The French Revolution, two topics you don’t hear in a general setting. It may also be because this opera is very difficult to relate to in this day and age.

    Although this is not a musical comment, I particularly enjoyed the simple staging. It was not overbearing, which I have seen happen on multiple occasions. There were very few things I felt hindered the performance. One important factor was the balance between the orchestra and the singers. Some moments I was unable to understand the dialogue and it became confusing. I was always fascinated by Poulenc’s use of color in this opera, and felt that while some moments delivered (such as the ending of Act 1), others were lacking. This may be because of a few intonation issues or the orchestration used.

    Overall this was an outstanding performance, and those involved deserve recognition of their dedication and hard work.

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