Ensemble, Act II. Photo (c) Dell'Arte Opera
Francis Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites is a work that I love: its structure is (to me) something of a marvel, its music is gorgeous and gripping, and its characterization, both through the music and the libretto, is brilliant. I was delighted, therefore, to hear it live for the first time, performed by the Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble. (Information on further performances is here, for all the rest of you complaining about the tragic brevity of the Met's run in spring.) With limited resources, they gave a performance notable for the commitment of its principals. Dell'Arte's orchestral forces were small, but sensitively led by Christopher Fecteau. The brass was afflicted with wobbles, but the ensemble as a whole did a fine job of sustaining dramatic momentum. Sets and costumes were minimal, but Victoria Crutchfield's direction was thoughtful, with the choreography of the nuns representing the tensions within their common life, as well as the affections and habits that bound them together.
One of the chief virtues of the production was the degree to which the individual characterization of the nuns and their devotion to their calling and to each other was realized. In smaller roles, Lawrence Bianco made a sweet-toned Aumonier, and Raphaël Treiner a convincingly passionate Chevalier, with fine phrasing. Maria Alu contributed bright, agile singing as Soeur Constance, making her not only cheerful but genuinely joyful. The somewhat enigmatic and difficult Mère Marie was sensitively characterized by Laura Federici. (Have I mentioned how much I love Poulenc's portrayal of the nuns? Credit for this also goes to Georges Bernanos, who wrote the play on which the libretto is based.) Leanne Gonzalez-Singer made an unusually gentle Madame de Croissy. As Madame Lidoine, Mary Ann Stewart was excellent; good phrasing and diction, coupled with a warm, weighty mezzo, made hers a compelling portrayal of this woman with surprising reserves of generosity and strength. Jennifer Moore as Blanche was convincingly haunted and nervy. At the outset, her sound also sounded somewhat tense to me, but this may have been a conscious choice; in any case, she managed the role's vocal challenges well. I cried when the nuns prayed together. And I wasn't the only one desperately tense during the final scene.