ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

SFO’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites”―an opera of faith, with inspiring conversations sung to beautiful music―through Sunday, October 30

Acclaimed soprano Heidi Stober in her role debut at SFO as Blanche de la Force, a young noblewoman whose world is growing darker. Outside her Parisian manor walls, revolutionaries want her dead, so she takes refuge in a convent of nuns. Instead of sanctuary, she finds her calling and takes the ultimate stand for faith. SFO’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” is sung entirely in beautiful French. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Near the end of Act I in Francis Poulenc’s, “Dialogues of the Carmelites” at SFO (San Francisco Opera), the words of the dying prioress, Madame de Croissy (soprano Michaela Schuster), pierced me.  Delirious with pain and fear, and experiencing a crisis of faith, she cries out “Who am I at this moment, wretched as I am, to concern myself with Him! Let Him first concern himself with me!”  It’s heavy. Once death is knocking at her door, the old nun who has spent her life contemplating death, finds no comfort and instead lashes out at God. When a younger nun, Sister Constance (Soprano Deanna Breiwick) in conversation with the heroine, Blanche, later questions why a God-fearing nun like Madame de Croissy had to die such an agonizing death, she hints that perhaps the prioress didn’t die for herself but for someone else who would be surprised to find unexpected serenity when facing her own death. Conversations like this about our deep beliefs, examining God’s absence. and the very path of our souls make Poulec’s 1957 opera thought-provoking and timeless. Add his hauntingly poetic music, performed by SF Opera’s Orchestra under Music Director Eun Sun Kim, and singing by top talent and it all combines for an unforgettable experience. Running at two hours and fifty minutes, the new higher and immensely comfortable seating at War Memorial Opera House makes this an even more pleasurable experience. “Dialogues…” is at SF Opera through October 30 and can be live-streamed. This review pertains to Friday, October 21 performance.

Heidi Stober as Blanche de la Force and Michaela Schuster as Madame de Croissy in Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” Stunning lighting by Bertrand Kelly, shines through angular openings in the walls, casting characters in dramatic light and defining space, complimenting Olivier Py and Daniel Izzo’s minimalist monochrome staging. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

As SFO celebrates its centennial year and musical landmarks in its rich history, it honors the company’s US premiere of “Dialogues of the Carmelites” in 1957 with a new co-production by Théâtre des Champs-Elysées and Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Bruxelles, conceived by Olivier Py with production design by Pierre-André Weitz and revival staging by Daniel Izzo. SFO’s 1957 premiere was especially noted for Soprano Leontyne Price’s stunning Lidoine–her first role with a major American opera company.  Poulenc wrote his opera in French and his libretto was after the text from a play by Georges Bernanos. The opera’s 1957 SFO premiere and subsequent SFO presentations in 1963 and 1982 used an English translation of the French libretto. SFO’s 2022 performances are the first to be sung in beautiful French using Poulenc’s original text.  

Set in 1789-1794 France, Poulenc’s “Dialogues” is based on the true story of the Martyrs of Compiègne, a community of sixteen Carmelite nuns who were guillotined during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror for refusing to denounce their faith. The opera balances this terrible episode in French history with the inner spiritual journey of the fictional Blanche de la Force, a neurotic young woman from an aristocratic Parisian family whose fear of the oncoming Revolution drives her to seek refuge in the Carmelite order. Once in the convent in Compiègne, she encounters women who are deeply committed to their vocation and who have the strength of character she lacks.

Michaela Schuster as Madame de Croissy and Heidi Stober as Blanche de la Force in Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites.”

Four women influence Blanche in very different ways and, along with Stober, are the opera’s key singers: the old prioress Mme. de Croissy, the sweet and lovable Sister Constance, the fervent assistant prioress Mother Marie, and the endearing Mme. Lidoine who becomes prioress after Croissy’s death. Despite that these characters are all sopranos, all dressed similarly, it was easy to distinguish their voices.

The opera begins and ends with Blanche de la Force and, once again, Heidi Stober wowed the audience with her stunning voice and mastery of the myriad of shifting emotions in this complex character. Stober made her first SFO appearances in fall 2010 as Sophie in “Werther” and as Susanna in “Le Nozze di Figaro.” She went on to mesmerize audiences with her spectacular glittering range as Pamina in Jun Kaneko’s “The Magic Flute,” and on to Kitty Hawks in “Show Boat” and Norina in “Don Pasquale” and many other roles. Singing flighty Blanche, in her role debut, required Stober to summon her darker tormented side, which she did in spades on Friday from her appearance in Act I as neurotic and fear-ridden to her Act II heartbreaking duet with her brother, the Chevalier de la Force (Ben Bliss) when she asserts her wish to stay and to die, if need be. Her remarkable transformation to a place of deep trusting faith, acceptance of death and sacrifice in Act III was masterful.

In her SFO debut, German soprano Michaela Schuster with her powerful turbulent sound was glorious in her death scene as the fear-ridden, almost blasphemous Mme. de Croissy. Deanna Breiwck as Constance, the youngest of the nuns and Blanche’s contemporary and comrade, sung her role with bright energy. She unnerved Blanche by expressing her hope to die young and in her eerie prediction that she and Blanche would die on the same day. Former Merola and Adler Fellow Melody Moore as assistant prioress, Mother Marie, has such a recognizable voice and masterful emotional affect that even in this small role she was memorable as she longed so deeply for martyrdom with her spiritual wards but was denied it. As the Reign of Terror approaches and the nuns are arrested, Michelle Bradley as new prioress, Mme. Lidoine was particularly compassionate in reminding the sisters that one does not choose to be a martyr; God chooses. She was enthralling in guiding the sisters in their vow of martyrdom. At the last moment, in the opera’s brilliantly staged final act, as the nuns are guillotined one by one, Blanche has come out of hiding. She summons her courage and steps out from the crowd to follow Sister Constance to the guillotine.

Deanna Breiwick as Sister Constance and Heidi Stober as Blanche de la Force in Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” Closest to Blanche in age, fun-loving Constance quickly befriends Blanche but Blanche is unnerved when Constance expresses that she hopes to die young and then predicts that she and Blanche will die on the same day. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Full of Christian references, from crosses to breathtaking mystical scenes enacted by the nuns, such as the birth of Christ using simple flat wooden cut outs against a backdrop of glowing light and the stark woods of Northern France, Py’s staging references the sacred. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Efraín Solís as the Jailor (left) with the imprisoned Carmelite nuns about to be executed. Lighting designer Bertrand Killy paints brilliantly with light and shadow, defining space and giving form to the emotional experiences of the characters. Olivier Py’sand Daniel Izzo’s quiet monochrome set design, features sliding walls in strong geometrics. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

“Dialogues” doesn’t have traditional arias; rather it’s a series of beautifully sung, mostly brief conversations in arioso style singing which adapts speech-like patterns. In Act III’s dramatic conclusion, condemned to death, the Carmelites proceed barefoot hand in hand to an unseen guillotine, chanting the Marian prayer hymn “Salve Regina” (“Hail holy Queen”) against the backdrop of a clear starry night. Their voices grow quieter as the fourteen sisters, one by one, are silenced by the guillotine, until at the end, only Sister Constance can be heard. Just as she is about to be silenced, she sees Blanche stepping forward, and dies knowing that her friend has decided to rejoin her fellow sisters in martyrdom. Instead of continuing on with the “Salve Regina,” Blanche sings the four last lines of another beautiful prayer, the “Veni Creator Spiritus” (“Come Holy Spirit”), a text usually sung during the ordination of priests and at holy confirmation. Poulenc chose this prayer because it is associated with the absolute dedication of one’s life to God. Stober’s singing and acting was piercingly beautiful in these final moments, projecting inner calm and acceptance as she rejoins the Carmelites for eternity. They have all sacrificed their lives in peaceful resignation.

The finale of Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” Olivier Py and Daniel Izzo arranged the sisters, all in white garb, in a semi-circle, holding hands singing “Salve Regina”, against the backdrop of a clear starry night. One by one, as the sound of the guillotine sound interrupted the hymn, one of the sisters put her head down and walked to the back and disappeared into the sky. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The momentous simplicity of Olivier Py‘s and Daniel Izzo’s staging and designer Pierre-André Weitz’s sets strikes a balance between visual innuendo and the profound spiritual message of the dialogues.  Executed in dark shades of gray and relying on shifting of simple geometric forms—squares and crosses—and their interplay with streams of light; the sparse sets reinforce the sense of fear, of darkness closing in and snuffing out life as the French Revolution approaches.  In Act I, the library in the Marquis de la Force’s chateau is suggested by black wood paneling with a single elegant chandelier. Blanche’s passage into her religious life is reinforced by the four walls of the de la Force chateau cleverly retracting so that she actually walks through an opening in the shape of a cross bathed in light. Also notable is the staging of Prioress Mme. de Croissy’s death marking the end of Act I.  Her bed is affixed to the infirmary’s wall, so she’s vertical and the audience can fully take in her tormented tumultuous passing, with her arms flailing and outstretched, sometimes forming a cross.

Music Director Eun Sun Kim, conducting the opera for the first time led the orchestra in a beautiful and vibrant reading of Poulenc’s score, stressing the tonality of the score as well as its passages of plush lyricism.

Since this opera has such an intense psychological dimension, if you do go, your best experience will be had sitting close to the stage where you can see the singers’ expressions.

Details:

There are two remaining performances of “Dialogues of the Carmelites”: Wed, 10/26 at 7:30 pm; Sun, 10/30 at 2 pm. Run Time: 2 hours and 50 min, with one intermission following Act I. Tickets: Purchase online: https://www.sfopera.com/operas/dialogues-of-the-carmelites/ .

Traffic alert: If you are driving in from the North Bay, allow at least 45 min travel/parking time from the Golden Gate Bridge to War Memorial Opera House. For a list of parking garages closest to the opera house, visit https://sfopera.com/plan-your-visit/directions-and-parking/

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October 25, 2022 - Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Beautiful piece Geneva. Thank you

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Comment by Karen Petersen | October 26, 2022 | Reply


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