Francis Poulenc’s opera "Les Dialogues des Carmelites" is a dramatic, deeply personal account of the ultimate fear of death overcome by faith and rebuked in martyrdom. The drama is painted on the tumultuous canvas of the French Revolution. Throughout Poulenc’s music is smoothly supportive, always dynamic, and mostly sweet with occasional moments of this composer’s distinctly French dryness.
Saturday night, Christina Bonsall gave a good account of the emotionally demanding role of Blanche, the fear ridden upper class girl who seeks refuge from life itself with the Carmelites. Teresa Herold was by turns heroic, frightened and frightening in the role of the order’s dying Prioress. Eileen Marie Bora was both sympathetic and commanding as the new Prioress who must preside over the dissolution of the convent and the wrenching final scenes. Hee Jung Yoo was the evening’s darling as Constance the frightened Blanche’s lighthearted companion. Stephanie Bain sang well in the difficult role of Mother Marie, a nun who proposes the martyrdom and yet escapes it. It’s she who says, "So that France may once again have priests, the daughters of Carmel have only to give their lives."
Throughout the three acts of "Les Dialogues des Carmelites" guest conductor Randall Behr showed a steady hand. The orchestra played the lush score beautifully and the link between the stage and the pit was always secure.
Guest stage director Tazewell Thompson has a wealth of varied theatre and opera experience. With a recent Glimmerglass production, the IU performances and an upcoming production Vancouver, "The Dialogues…" is becoming one of his specialties. I particularly enjoyed the bare efficiency of the staging with David Higgins’ simple sets in the first parts as Thompson emphasized the separation of the characters even in intensely emotional moments. It was only after their convent has been destroyed that the sisters touched, held and comforted one another. Most of the staging made good dramatic and what’s more musical sense. However, here are a couple of puzzles: Why was tenor Emilio Jimenez-Pons as Blanche’s brother so repeatedly kissing her hand that it suggested incest? ; And why was the black costumed chorus of the execution scene dressed like French people from the 1940s?
In the final scene as the sisters ascend the scaffold and walk to the off-stage guillotine, Thompson’s direction made for poignant variety in the individual sister’s mix of fear and resolution. It deeply stirred my own severe reservations about martyrdom. However, the final moments as Blanche overcame her fear and was reunited in loving resolve with her friend Constance was deeply moving. This is definitely opera with an edge.
You can see this and other WFIU theatre and film reviews and hears an interview with director Tazewell Thompson on our web site at George Walker’s Arts Interviews .