FRANCIS POULENC (1899 – 1963): Dialogues of the Carmelites—Shelley Marie Mihm (Blanche de la Force), Emily Wolber Scheuring (Madame de Croissy), Lyndsey Swann (Madame Lidoine), Megan Callahan (Mother Marie of the Incarnation), Rachel Anthony (Sister Constance of St. Denis), Allyson Goff (Mother Jeanne of the Child Jesus), Dana MacIntosh (Sister Mathilde), Nicholas Dankner (The Marquis de la Force), Derek Jackenheimer (The Chevalier de la Force), Michaela Kelly (Mother Gerald), Emily Frye (Sister Claire), Grace McKinnon (Sister Antoine), Emily Armstrong (Sister Catherine), Ashley Buffa (Sister Felicity), Jessica Hannah (Sister Gertrude), Brittany Infranco (Sister Alice), Olivia Boddicker (Sister Valentine), Mary B. Safrit (Sister Anne of the Cross), Shelby Thiedeman (Sister Martha), Cassie Machamer (Sister St. Charles), Jesse Herndon (The Father Confessor), Benjamin Ramsey (First Commissaire, Second Officer), Baker Lawrimore (Second Commissaire, First Officer), James Scarantino (Jailer), Brent Byhre (Thierry, Monsieur Javelinot); UNCG School of Music, Theatre and Dance Opera Theatre Orchestra and Chorus; David Holley, Conductor, Stage Director, Producer, and Music Director [Donna Rendely, Chorus Master; Amanda Warriner, Scenic Designer; Deborah Bell, Costume Designer; Louis Costanzo, Lighting Designer; Shane Burgett, Technical Director; University of North Carolina at Greensboro School of Music, Theatre and Dance Opera Theatre, Aycock Auditorium, Greensboro, North Carolina; Thursday, 7 April 2016]
Opera in the Twenty-First Century is often compelled to make Herculean efforts to justify an anachronistic relevance that was never among the genre’s foremost objectives. From the time of the first performance of Jacopo Peri’s Dafne, likely in the 1598 Carnevale season, composers of opera have repeatedly reiterated in diaries, correspondence, conversations, and interviews that their goals in writing for the stage have been, as Händel reflected about the creation of his Messiah, to educate and enlighten audiences. That this requires relevance is a modern conceit that belittles composers’ achievements and audiences’ intelligence. Heroes and deities of Antiquity are no more relevant in any meaningful sense to Twenty-First-Century audiences than they were to observers in previous centuries, but the ways in which composers translated the all-too-human stories of these irrelevant figures of fable, myth, and distant history into music transcend modern notions of relevance. Composed between 1953 and 1956, during a tumultuous period in the composer’s life, Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites tells the story of the sixteen martyrs of Compiègne, Carmelites whose courageous refusal to denounce their faith and austere way of life led to their condemnation and execution by France’s Convention nationale in 1794. Though at odds with some aspects of Church doctrine, Poulenc embraced Catholicism whilst Dialogues of the Carmelites took shape, his spirituality perhaps arising from the uncertainty and recriminations that gripped France as the nation grappled with the fallout from Nazi collaboration, resistance, and the Holocaust. It was Poulenc’s explicit wish that the opera always be performed in the vernacular of the audience at hand: the world première at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala in 1957, five months before the French premième in Paris, was therefore sung in Italian, and the British and American premières were given in English. Furthering this tradition, UNCG Opera Theatre’s production employs the excellent English translation of Poulenc’s original libretto by Joseph Machlis*, removing any linguistic barriers between the opera and the audience. Returning Dialogues of the Carmelites to Greensboro after an absence of nearly two decades, this production serves as a powerful reminder of the awesome kinetic energy of opera. If two-and-a-half hours of music can break the heart with reminiscences of the dialogues of ladies whose voices were silenced more than two centuries ago, what need is there for concocted relevance?
With atmospheric, visually compelling scenic designs by Amanda Warriner and costume designs by Deborah Bell that both firmly established the drama’s provenance and emphasized the Carmelites’ isolation from the world in which their communal destiny was determined, UNCG Opera Theatre’s production succeeded more completely than many productions by well-funded professional opera companies at bringing the composer’s intentions to the stage with poignant immediacy. Imaginatively but clear-headedly illuminated by Louis Costanzo’s lighting designs and brought off with utter conviction under the guidance of Technical Director Shane Burgett, the blocking and stage action could virtually have been used to transcribe Poulenc’s stage directions verbatim. Regrettably, this observation might be misconstrued as having a negative connotation, the notion of following a composer’s instructions having become anathema in many operatically-inclined camps, but it is very gratifying to witness a production in which a pervasive respect of the composer’s specifications is the obvious core of the design team’s focus. In truth, Dialogues of the Carmelites is an opera that can withstand updating: relocate the ladies of Compiègne to occupied France during World War II or the modern Paris of François Hollande, and their story is no less harrowing than when they are allowed to dwell in 1790s France. How much more challenging it is to combine creative license with fidelity to the composer, however, and UNCG Opera Theatre’s production disclosed how sublime the results of such endeavors can be, providing the audience with a Dialogues of the Carmelites that complemented Poulenc’s music rather than distracting from it. Like the celebrated John Dexter production at The Metropolitan Opera, this Dialogues offered strikingly memorable tableaux of incredible beauty and emotional impact. With a production of this quality representing the nurturing of the next generation of guardians of opera, is the oft-expressed fear for the genre’s survival truly rational?
La foi dans les chaînes: a scene from UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, April 2016 [Photo by Rachel Anthony, © by rayphotographyco.com]
Poulenc scored Dialogues of the Carmelites for two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons (one doubling on contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, two harps, piano, timpani, percussion, and strings. Musically, the opera is a triumph of fundamental tonalism, the prevailing idiom of the vocal writing being, as Poulenc readily admitted, unapologetically rooted in late-Romantic tradition. Though Madame de Croissy’s death scene and the opera’s final minutes are gruesome, the music never abandons the rich lodes of melody and innovative but consistently tonal harmonies that Poulenc mines throughout the score. Under the baton of the production’s conductor, producer, Stage Director, and Music Director David Holley, the UNCG Opera Theatre Orchestra musicians executed their parts with extraordinary vigor, clearly inspired by Holley’s leadership. The score’s difficulties were mostly conquered with absolute confidence. Bringing to his guidance of this production experience with Dialogues of the Carmelites that began in graduate school and encompasses a presentation of the opera at Greensboro’s Our Lady of Grace Church in 1997, Holley divulged an abiding affection for this music that shone in his handling of every bar of the score. Conceived in twelve scenes with interconnecting orchestral interludes, the construction of Dialogues of the Carmelites is not unlike that of Britten’s Peter Grimes, and the operas share the central theme of an individual at odds with the wider community. As in Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, there is perhaps a link between Blanche’s predicament and an artist’s relationship with society, but this production approached Blanche and her companions in the Carmel de Compiègne not as archetypes or symbols of elements of universal social orders but as people, wondrously complex in their simplicity, whose lives intersected at a specific, tragic historical crossroads. Holley adopted tempi that highlighted the skill with which Poulenc wrote for voices and instruments, the conductor’s instinctive understanding of the composer’s exquisite vocal writing enabling the listener to fully experience the rousing breadth of Poulenc’s creation. A singer himself, Holley conducts in a manner that seemed to breathe with the singers, and his approach to Dialogues of the Carmelites balanced nuanced negotiations of the composer’s demands with close but not coddling support of singers and instrumentalists.
Student productions at even the most prestigious institutions can be compromised by unfinished, ‘green’ singing, but a particular strength of UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Dialogues of the Carmelites was the uniformly high standard of the singers’ work; a standard, set in the opera’s opening scene, from which the young, hearteningly capable cast never deviated. Each of the ladies portraying the martyrs of Compiègne—Dana MacIntosh as Sister Mathilde, Michaela Kelley as Mother Gérald, Emily Frye as Sister Claire, Grace McKinnon as Sister Antoine, Emily Armstrong as Sister Catherine, Ashley Buffa as Sister Félicité, Jessica Hannah as Sister Gertrude, Brittany Infranco as Sister Alice, Olivia Boddicker as Sister Valentine, Mary B. Safrit as Sister Anne of the Cross, Shelby Thiedeman as Sister Martha, and Cassie Machamer as Sister St. Charles—sang her part with integrity. Temporary weaknesses rapidly passed into insignificance, and both the ensemble of Carmelites and the excellent UNCG Opera Theatre Chorus, fastidiously prepared by Chorus Master Donna Rendely, substantially enhanced the professionalism of the performance, singing not only with musicality but with audible conviction.
Doubling as the First and Second Commissaires and the Officers, tenor Benjamin Ramsey and bass Baker Lawrimore brought firm tones and dramatic involvement to their performances. In the scene in Act Two in which the Carmelites are matter-of-factly informed of their impending expulsion from their cloister, the cold indifference of the text was reflected in the vocalism. Likewise, baritone James V. Scarantino was an imposing Jailer. Baritone Brent Byhre, the energetic Strephon in Greensboro Light Opera and Song’s 2015 production of Gilbert’s and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, sang handsomely as the valet Thierry and Monsieur Javelinot, the physician who tends to the Old Prioress during her final agony. As an industrious, concerned Chaplain, tenor Jesse Herndon sang ‘My faithful daughters, I know that some among you already have heard what I m about to say’ in Act Two with the concentration that the dramatic importance of the character’s words demands. Likewise, mezzo-soprano Allyson Goff met every demand of Poulenc’s music for Mother Jeanne of the Child Jesus, her voicing of ‘My sisters, our Reverent Mother is coming to say goodbye to you all, for she must go to Paris tonight’ in Act Two disclosing an insightful use of text allied with a focused voice of great potential.
Fils et père: Tenor Derek Jackenheimer as the Chevalier de la Force (left) and baritone James V. Scarantino as the Marquis de la Force (right; performing on 8 April) in UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, April 2016 [Photo by Rachel Anthony, © by rayphotographyco.com]
Tenor Derek Jackenheimer, unforgettable in UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Philip Glass’s Galileo Galilei, and baritone Nicholas Dankner were a musically and dramatically well-matched son and father as the Chevalier and Marquis de la Force. In the opening scene of Act One, father and brother conducted their discussion about the worryingly unconventional Blanche with appropriate gravity. Only Dankner’s youth undermined the credibility of his portrayal of the troubled Marquis, whose wig, incidentally, made him uncannily resemble Beethoven. In Act Two, Jackenheimer brought moving urgency to the Chevalier’s scene with Blanche at the cloister. Urging his willful sister to abandon the Carmelite community in order to seek refuge from the Terror among her family, he voiced ‘Blanche, why do you behave like this?’ with frustrated anger. The discord between brother and sister, only partially set right by their reconciliation at the scene’s end, set the tone for the balance of the opera, and Jackenheimer’s agitated presence contributed to comprehension of the foundations of Blanche’s complicated psychology. As used here, baritone and tenor possess voices destined for admirable careers.
Mother Marie of the Incarnation, the stern voice of dogmatic rigidity within the Carmelite community, was sung by mezzo-soprano Megan Callahan with ironclad assurance and a wide emotional spectrum that was evidence of what promises to develop into a noteworthy interpretive acuity. Reacting to the Old Prioress’s death throes in Act One, Callahan lent Mother Marie’s dire proclamations startling intensity, especially in her appalled objections to the sisters seeing the Old Prioress in her diminished state. A suggestion of humanity was infused by the singer into the Act Two scene in which Mother Marie confronts Blanche as she begins to leave the Old Prioress’s corpse unattended, and the voice rang out with even greater impact. Mother Marie’s greatest challenges come in Act Three, and Callahan delivered ‘My daughters, I propose that we take upon ourselves the vow of martyrdom, to give our lives for the glory of Carmel and the salvation of our land’ with a determination that conveyed the character’s formidable zealotry. Later entreating Blanche to return to the company of her Carmelite sisters, this Mother Marie was torn between maternal kindness and exasperation with her frightened, recalcitrant charge. Finally, learning from the Chaplain that the Carmelites have been condemned and will soon be executed, she lamented the dishonor of her broken vow, a crippling failure made devastatingly momentous in this performance. In many ways, Mother Marie is the most enigmatic of the opera’s characters and one of the most vividly drawn by Poulenc. Callahan portrayed her not as an unfeeling gorgon but as a woman whose harshness seemed to arise from vulnerability. There was no harshness in Callahan’s vocalism, however: her unforced vocalism and solidity of tone throughout the range were most welcome in music too often subjected to stridency.
Sœur et frère: Soprano Ashley Oliveira as Blanche de la Force (left; performing on 8 April) and tenor Derek Jackenheimer as the Chevalier de la Force (right) in UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites [Photo by Rachel Anthony, © by rayphotographyco.com]
Performing the rôle of the fanciful but touchingly sincere young Sister Constance of Saint-Denis, soprano—and gifted photographer, as her photographs of this production prove—Rachel Anthony shaped her lines with freshness and grace, her description of Constance’s memories of her brother’s nuptial festivities in her native village just before taking her vows sparkling with girlish joy. Telling Blanche in Act One of her premonition of their shared death, Anthony’s Constance exuded innocence and seemed genuinely hurt when Blanche scoffed at her vision. In the Act Two scene in which Constance and Blanche stand vigil before the Old Prioress’s corpse, Anthony sang ‘One would think when He have such a death to her, our good Lord made a great mistake; like in a cloakroom when you’re given someone else’s coat’ with telling lightness, conveying the purity of spirit that enables the character to discuss matters of such import with levity and humor. Then, the seriousness of Anthony’s voicing of ‘We die not for ourselves alone, but we die for each other, or probably even instead of each other’ was evidence of the depth of through of which Constance is capable. This unexpected profundity is continued in Act Three in the noble-hearted sister’s confession that she was the source of the sole vote against taking the vow of martyrdom. Constance is not a traditional operatic seconda donna or confidante in the tradition of Belinda in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas or, more closely related, Suor Genovieffa in Puccini’s Suor Angelica, and Anthony’s performance, centered on youthful, attractive singing and particular brightness in her secure, exhilarating upper register, reminiscent of the young Roberta Peters, confirmed the significance of the character’s stature in Poulenc’s thoughtfully-wrought drama.
The Old Prioress, Madame de Croissy, received from mezzo-soprano Emily Wolber Scheuring a reading of sonorous vocal force and histrionic specificity. Phrasing expansively and rising to the uppermost reaches of her music with undaunted strength, Scheuring was visually too young to be fully believable as the illness-ridden Old Prioress even with artful wig and makeup. From her first appearance in the second scene of Act One, though, she inhabited the rôle completely, impressively establishing the character’s pragmatism with her singing of ‘Do not believe this comfortable chair is a privilege of my position.’ There was tenderness in her statement of ‘My daughter, the outside world often questions the purpose of our Order’ to the uneasy Blanche, revealing the magnetism of the connection that she feels with the young postulant. Scheuring’s singing and acting in the Old Prioress’s death scene were riveting, her declamation of ‘God has become a shadow’ filling the auditorium with chilling sound. Her agonizing death fell like a pall upon the community that she safeguarded, but even the singer’s parlando last utterances were supremely musical. Only a few of the rôle’s lowest notes were of reduced brawn, partially owing to Scheuring’s careful negotiations of vocal registers, but her performance was gripping.
D'une génération à l'autre: Mezzo-soprano Natalie Rose Havens as Madame de Croissy (left) and soprano Ashley Oliveira as Blanche de la Force (right), both performing on 8 April, in UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, April 2016 [Photo by Rachel Anthony, © by rayphotographyco.com]
The rôle of Madame Lidoine, the Carmelite community’s new prioress, has one of the most prestigious and diverse sororities of first interpreters of any part in opera: Leyla Gencer in the Italian première, Régine Crespin in the French première, Dame Joan Sutherland in the British première, Hilde Zadek in the score’s first hearing in Austria, Leontyne Price in the San Francisco Opera production that introduced Poulenc’s intrepid nuns to America, and Shirley Verrett in the opera’s belated Metropolitan Opera première. In fact, these storied singers’ repertoires likely intersected in only two other rôles, Verdi’s Aida and Amelia in Un ballo in maschera. Astonishingly comfortable across the large compass of the New Prioress’s music, soprano Lyndsey Swann was even at this early juncture in her career by no means an inadequate successor to the great ladies of the stage from whom she inherited Madame Lidoine’s habit. Introducing herself to her new flock in Act Two, she phrased ‘My dear daughters, I don’t need to remind you of your terrible misfortune in losing your beloved Mother’ with the enthusiasm of a new leader eager to make a good impression. Responding to Constance’s lament for the state of the Church in Revolutionary France, Swann’s Madame Lidoine intoned ‘When there are no priests there’ll be martyrs in plenty, thus the balance of grace is very soon restored’ with unmistakable certainty of faith. She was resolute in correcting Mother Marie’s misunderstanding of the meaning of her comment about offering their lives for the survival of the Church, however, her voicing of ‘We are not allowed to decide if our humble names shall be inscribed among the martyrs’ lashing at her subordinate with stinging accuracy of intonation. In Act Three, the composed dignity with which ‘My daughters, we have almost come to the end of our first night in prison’ was sung to the desolate Carmelites was beautifully comforting, the singer’s voice enveloping her fellow nuns like a protecting embrace. The sadness that emanated from Swann’s singing of ‘My daughters, I wanted to save you, save you with all my heart’ completed Madame Lidoine’s transition from authority figure to fellow martyr, her heroism scaled to that of her companions. The amplitude of Swann’s voice suited Madame Lidoine’s music almost perfectly, and this compelling young artist unhesitatingly surrendered herself to Poulenc’s drama.
De cloître au martyre: a scene from UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, April 2016 [Photo by Rachel Anthony, © by rayphotographyco.com]
Blanche de la Force, the ostensible protagonist in an opera with a multitude of heroines, has a performance history no less distinguished than that of Madame Lidoine. Created at La Scala by Virginia Zeani, in Paris by Denise Duval, in London by Elsie Morison, and in San Francisco by Dorothy Kirsten, Blanche, too, makes incredible demands on the singer intrepid enough to don her drab attire. Minnesota-born soprano Shelley Marie Mihm met those demands unflinchingly, soaring above the stave with effortless control and sure pitch. Conversing with Blanche’s father and brother in the opening scene of Act One, she sang both ‘Little lambs do not often find themselves straying so far from the fold’ and ‘Dear father, there is no incident so small or unimportant that it is not written by the hand of God’ with musical and metaphysical muscle. As her cheerful victim observed, there was something ferocious in this Blanche’s query of ‘Are you not afraid that God will grow rather tired of your good humor?’ in her scene with Constance. The shame of having given in to fear and abandoned her watch over the Old Prioress’s remains was redoubled by Mother Marie’s insinuations, Swann’s voice quivering with emotion. Blanche’s scene with her brother, the Chevalier, brings to mind the famous encounter between Angelica and the implacable Zia principessa in Puccini’s Suor Angelica, and Swann matched wits with Jackenheimer viscerally, the soprano’s Blanche giving ‘I now am a daughter of God, who will suffer for you, and whom I ask you most sincerely to respect, from now on, as a companion in battle’ an eerie aura of reluctant triumph. The climax of the tense Act Three scene in the dead Marquis’s house, to which Mother Marie has come to coax Blanche back to her Carmelite sisters, was Mihm’s despondent cries of ‘What have they got against me? Have I done them any harm?’ That this Blanche would appear to assume her place among her sisters as they marched to the scaffold, in this production exiting through the house as the sound of the bloodthirsty blade’s repeated fall sliced through the orchestra, seemed inevitable. Mihm occasionally lost the battle to be heard when singing in the lower octave of her range, but the upper register was unfailingly resilient at any dynamic level. Never wholly sympathetic, Blanche demands concentration and expressive boldness and received both from Mihm. Like Swann, she continued the exalted lineage of notable interpreters of her part.
Musical criticism is and should be an embodiment of Abraham Lincoln’s sentiment in the Gettysburg Address that the words that describe an auspicious occasion will be quickly forgotten whilst the deeds that inspired them will be long remembered. Too often, though, the productions about which critics write are memorable primarily for these reactions rather than the actions to which they respond. The UNCG Opera Theatre production of Francis Poulenc’s harrowing and thought-provoking Dialogues of the Carmelites was an example of what opera in the Twenty-First Century can and should aspire to be. It is passion, not ‘relevance,’ that sustains opera, and this performance of Dialogues of the Carmelites passionately reaffirmed that, to again adapt the words of Lincoln, opera of, by, and for the people is no less viable and vital now than when the sixteen martyrs of Compiègne gave their lives for daring to live as their hearts dictated. This was a performance that will not be soon forgotten.
*There were in UNCG Opera Theatre’s performance some few very minor differences from the text of the Machlis translation as published at the time of the Covent Garden première. Efforts have been made to accurately reflect what was actually sung in Greensboro, but there are instances in which the texts referenced are those that appear in the published English libretto.