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.
“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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.