“Dialogues of the Carmelites” ends Met Opera HD series

5 mins read

By Alan Schuster

And now she’s back, this time on stage – believe it or not – in the starkly dissimilar role of a nun in the Met’s HD season finale of Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues des Carmelites.” 

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, memorable for her Nov. 2018 Met performance as a deceitful thief in the title role of “Marnie,” is one of the most in-demand opera singers in the world today. 

It’s also a terrifying finale for 16 nuns, who are beheaded one by one – and amplified by swishes of the guillotine – for refusing to renounce their vocation.

Summary: The opera begins during the French Revolution. To escape the violence enacted on members of the aristocracy, Blanche de la Force forsakes the outside world and joins a Carmelite monastery. 

The Mother Superior corrects her way of thinking; the monastery cannot protect her, it must be her that protects the monastery. Later, as the Mother Superior lies dying, she places Blanche into the service of Mother Marie before passing away in great pain, claiming to be forsaken by God. 

This deeply bothers the witnesses to her death. Sister Constance wonders to Blanche if the Mother Superior had been given a death meant for someone else, suggesting that a peaceful death will come to someone else. 

When the chaplain has been forbidden to preach, the future of the monastery seems uncertain. Although Mother Marie wishes to give her life to change the situation in France, the new Mother Superior informs her that only God may decide who will become a martyr.

When the monastery falls under the ownership of the state, a police officer comes, insisting the nuns to give up their religious habits. Mother Marie convinces the other nuns to take a vow of martyrdom; although they all agree, Blanche has run away. Mother Marie goes off to search for her, finding her in the library of her father. 

Blanche’s father was sent to the guillotine, and so Blanche finds herself at the mercy of her former servants. While Mother Marie is away, the nuns have all been arrested and sentenced to death. The chaplain shares his belief that by being away at the time, God has chosen to spare Mother Marie, thus she cannot martyr herself alongside her sisters. 

When the time comes for the execution of the nuns, Blanche appears to join the doomed company. As the others are beheaded one by one before the guillotine, Blanche begins to sing a hymn offering her life to God. (Source: Met Opera)

New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini has written this about the opera: “Poulenc’s subtle and intricate tonal language is by turns hymnal and haunting. Though scored for a large orchestra, the instruments are often used in smaller groups selected for particular effects and colorings. The most distinctive element of the score, though, is its wonderfully natural vocal writing, which captures the rhythms and lyrical flow of the libretto in eloquent music that hardly calls attention to itself yet lingers with you.”

Opera historian Charles Osborne wrote that “”The inexorable dramatic movement of the work is impressive and, in the final scene in which the nuns walk in procession to the guillotine chanting the “Salve regina,” is extremely moving.  Google: Salve regina Carmelites; then select XV FAO. 

Cast: Joining Isabel Leonard as the young Blanche de la Force will be Met legend Karita Mattila, Adrianne Pieczonka, David Portillo and Dwayne Croft. Met Music Director Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducts. 

Tickets are now available at the USCB Center for the Arts, 801 Carteret Street, Beaufort. All seats are general admission. Adults $20; OLLI members $18; Students $10. Order online at www.centerforthearts.com or call 843-521-4145. Transmission begins at noon.

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