Dialogues of the Carmelites
The Washington National Opera:
Nuns like you have never seen before
Conversation heard in the audience before the performance about Lady Gaga at the Academy Awards singing songs from Sound of Music, including the anthem song, Climb Every Mountain, with its expression of human longing for spiritual direction of the Benedictine postulant Maria von Trapp.
There was surprise that Lady Gaga could sing so well.
There would be no surprise that the opera singers in Dialogues of the Carmelites would sing superbly. That is a given especially when Francesco Zambello is the artistic director.
These nuns would not be climbing mountains to reach their spiritual goals. They would be climbing the scaffold to the guillotine to fulfill their vow.
The production now, in an age where beheadings are video-ed across the world on the internet, of an opera written 50 years ago, post World War II horrors of annihilation, is jolting.
As a side note, the Oscar for Best Foreign Film went to Ida, the Polish film of a Jewish child hidden in the cloister from the terrorism of the Nazis who grows up and wants to be a nun. It is filmed in bleak black and white, as befits a symbol of the political and spiritual devastation of the Cold War.
The staging for Dialogues of the Carmelites is bright with golden sunlight, but the world in which it transpires, is as inhumane as ever known.
The story revolves around Blanche de La Force, an aristocratic woman who wants to join the Carmelites, but whose fear of everything, including shadows, is overwhelming. The historical facts are that in as the last hot summer of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, on July 17, 1794–the day after the feast of Our Lady of Mount Caramel—14 nuns, three lay sisters and two servants of the Carmelite house of Compiègne died for their Catholic faith
(BTW Ida also must examine her vocation in the aftermath of a brutal historical events—the holocaust which destroyed her family.)
While the setting and costume and singing are all great theater, there is something besides artistic merits to consider with this production.
Carmelites are an order of silence, thus making every word in the libretto particularly meaningful about the path of the soul. Fears and death. The radical destructive powers of the outside world that besiege the convent in the French Revolution are mighty but so are the interior human fears in each nun as she faces her own mortality.
One does not expect a religious experience at the opera. But to remember that once upon a time there were no art museums or grand theaters, and in that age, cathedrals were built, where art and story telling and music were one with the liturgical rites. Now separated into so many places, for us to seek our spiritual fixes, we might be repelled by Dialogues which puts it all together. It is the confusions of our age, inside of us which we bring with us to the theater.
You might try to sing Climb Every Mountain to bolster up. Dialogues—a no aria opera—is not something you hum to perk up spirits.
The resolve is not in a god that is a department store, ready to supply all our needs for the asking. It is not the stress free promises of yoga. Rather it is the raw reality, like what one of the astronauts said about being outside the space ship to do repairs and suddenly realizing there was nothing between him and the void, but his space suit.
This is where Francois Poulenc and all the contributors to the creation of this opera have led us.
Each nun climbs the steps —one by one to her fate, a fate that is the realization of her vow to die for her belief—each is singing the Salve Regina.
The music grows louder as there are less living nuns in this procession to sing their hymn on earth.
Blanche —who has run away from the convent—now returns to join her sisters in death.
No need to ask the audience to come on stage and participate in the show.
We are behind Blanche, to our end.
WANT TO GO?
WHERE: KENNEDY CENTER OPERA HOUSE UNTIL MARCH 10, 2015
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
GO TO KENNEDY CENTER WEB SITE AND CLICK ON WATCH AND LISTEN
Who are the Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne? By Stephanie Mann in Our Sunday Visitor
ABOUT THIS PRODUCTION
Madame Lidoine: Leah Crocetto*
Blanche de la Force: Layla Claire*
Madame de Croissy: Dolora Zajick
Mother Marie: Elizabeth Bishop
Sister Constance: Ashley Emerson
Marquis de la Force: Alan Held
Chevalier de la Force: Shawn Mathey
The Chaplain: Robert Baker
Conductor: Antony Walker
Director: Francesca Zambello
Set Designer: Hildegard Bechtler*
Costume Designer: Claudie Gastine
Lighting Designer: Mark McCullough