Francis Poulenc’s colorful and thought provoking drama Dialogues of the Carmelites takes us back to the 1790s in France. The once progressive revolution has descended into the terror. Aristocrats are guillotined and even the church is declared an enemy of new state.
Poulenc’s heroine Blanche has always been a fraidy cat. Her father the Marquis sympathizes, but thinks that marriage will cure her. Her brother and playfellow, the Chevalier shares his hope, though he’s less optimistic. Blanche, badly shaken by an encounter with a mob seeks shelter with the Carmelites. However, she is counseled by their old Prioress that it is a place of duty not refuge. At she settles in convent life and tasks, she meets Sister Constance. Constance is a cheery sort, but she has had a foreshadowing dream that the two will die together.
When the old Prioress dies an anguished and doubting death, Constance suggests to Blanche that her tortured death will allow someone else an easy one. Frankly, this idea feels a little strange, but Poulenc and Constance both believe in mystical substitution within the community. A reassuring new Prioress arrives to assure the Sisters that their duty is prayer.
A lot happens in the second act of the Dialogues of the Carmelites. Blanche’s brother arrives. In an impassioned scene, he begs her to join him to escape France, but she refuses. In the absence of the Prioress, the sub Prioress Mère Marie elicits a vote of martyrdom for the avowed purpose of saving France. When the Prioress returns, she agrees to join her sisters, while the absent Mère Marie is counseled that her own absence means that she is to be spared.
In the final scene, the nuns accompanied by the dozens of quite frightening members of the numerous mob sing the Salve Regina on their way to the guillotine. The first loud off stage chop is breath taking. Then each walks and characteristically makes her farewell. Finally, it’s Constance. She’s full of fear and hesitation, until she sees that Blanche has come and that her dream will come true.
As Blanche mounts the scaffold, there’s only her voice and the voices of the mob in the Salve Regina and she walks without fear, perhaps with the death that the old Prioress missed, as Mere Maria is the mute observer.
In Saturday night’s cast, Rose-Antoinette Bellino made a strong impression as the conflicted Blanche. Anna Donnelly was indeed her sunny companion Sister Constance. Liz Culpepper’s death scene as the old Prioress was frighteningly moving. Rodney Long was eloquent as Blanche’s escaping brother. Stephanie Tokarz was a reassuring figure as the new Prioress. Elizabeta Egladze was a key Mère Maria, the observing surviving instigator of the martyrdom.
The rallying of the two officers and the colorfully clad mob chorus of twenty-eight with nine supernumeraries was a frightening reminder of the power of individuals reduced to a single group and emotion.
Rani Calderon was the skillful conductor, nicely balancing the orchestral and vocal colors. Francesca Zambello directed the individual and the group scenes with meaning and grace. Hildegard Bechtler’s sets smoothly moved and dominated the action right up until and including the somewhat crude look for the scaffold scene. Mark McCullough’s lighting focused our attention in all the right places. Claudie Gastine’s costumes were a show unto themselves with dress for the aristocrats, a couple of changes for the sisters and the varied attire of the guards and the mob. Walter Huff’s mob sang smoothly supporting the final scene at the guillotine.
Francis Poulenc’s thought provoking drama, the Dialogues of the Carmelites has final performances October 19th and 20th at 7:30 in the IU Musical Arts Center
At the theatre for you, I’m George Walker.