On Saturday evening, the San Francisco Opera offered the first production in 40 years of Francois Poulenc's 1957 opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites
, and it's a very good one. Created in 2013 by French stage director Olivier Py for Brussels and Paris, the show balances abstraction and clear storytelling in its account of Carmelite nuns being martyred during the French Revolution. According to Wikipedia
, "Py describes himself as Catholic and homosexual...and is known for his emphasis on Catholic and homoerotic themes." So was composer Francois Poulenc, although it could not be quite as openly stated during the composer's lifetime (1899-1963).
The 19th Century French composer Hector Berlioz began his memoirs with a story about his first communion, writing "Needless to say, I was brought up in the Catholic and Apostolic Church of Rome. This charming religion (so attractive since it gave up burning people) was for seven whole years the joy of my life, and although we have long since fallen out, I have always kept most tender memories of it." I have felt similarly most of my life, but San Francisco's current homophobic, forced-birth Archibishop Cordileone, not to mention the U.S. Supreme Court, makes it difficult to feel anything but horror at Catholicism and its Holy Martyrs these days. (All photos by Cory Weaver, including the above with Michelle Bradley as the new Prioress in Act Two.)
The opera revolves around Blanche, an aristocratic young woman during the French Revolution who has been an oversensitive, frightened person all her life. In the first scene, she announces her desire to become a Carmelite nun to her father and brother. The role was written for Denise Duval, a soprano who was Poulenc's operatic muse, from Las Mamelles de Tiresias
to La Voix Humaine
, and she had a distinctive, tremulous, vulnerable voice that is inimitable. Heidi Stober, who has sung everything from Susanna in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro
to Magnolia Hawks in Jerome Kern's Showboat
, sang beautifully but I didn't buy her as a frail, neurotic creature for a second, just as I didn't believe the great Carol Vaness when she played the same role in 1982.
The tenor Ben Bliss was luxury casting as Blanche's brother, and his voice was so exquisitely sensitive and powerful that I wished for a moment we were watching Massenet's Werther
with Ben as the oversensitive poet hero.
That's a heretical thought, for which I am ashamed, because Dialogues of the Carmelites
is one of the few operas where all the major roles are written for women, with a few minor parts given to men. One of the greatest roles for an old soprano in the operatic repertory is Mme. de Croissy, Prioress, who presides over the convent in Scene 2 and dies a blasphemous, terrified death in Scene 4.
Although too young for the role at age 53, German soprano Michaela Schuster did a great job but she was literally straightjacketed by the staging concept where she was strapped to a wall posing as a floor during her death throes. Let the diva move and thrash around, I wanted to cry out.
My favorite performance of the evening on opening night was Deanna Breiwick as Constanze, Blanche's immediate best friend at the convent who is usually an annoyingly chirpy character, but in Breiwick's singing and characterization she was charming, wise, and effortlessly holy.
The reason you should run, not walk to the box office for this production, is that the music is so bizarrely exquisite. No opera sounds quite like it, with its series of strange musical chords underlying a French parlando that is a mixture of speaking and singing. Music Director Eun Sun Kim conducted the orchestra a bit too loudly and emphatically, making it sound more Italian than Poulenc's slightly vinegary French sound, but it was still lovely.
The ending of this opera was intentionally written to be shocking and lurid, as the Carmelite nuns make their way to the scaffold and their chorus of Salve Regina
becomes a smaller ensemble with each guillotine swoosh. Sadly, this production went for a sweet and sensitive staging, where the characters disappeared into the starry sky like angels after each whack, but it didn't matter. Check it out.