Saturday, April 21, 2012

A grand monument to tradition, done grandly (and traditionally)

Celeste Fraser and John Irvin as Blanche and her brother in Dialogues of the Carmelites.

Right now is a very good time for opera in the Hub.  I just got back from a truly hilarious operatic satire at Boston Lyric, The Inspector, which made for quite the contrast with Dialogues of the Carmelites, Francis Poulenc's intense investigation of the spiritual, which I caught on Thursday at the Boston University Opera Institute - in a solid, very moving version which plays through tomorrow afternoon.  Fans of Poulenc  (or simply fans of great opera - or great drama) won't want to miss this production.

Dialogues is by now established as one of the major operatic achievements of the twentieth century - even though at its premiere, Poulenc's relentlessly tonal music was widely razzed by the Schoenberg Politburo. Needless to say, the opera has survived the pseudo-intellectual fashions of its day -  but then most musical history of the twentieth century is slowly being re-written not as a tale of Schoenbergian revolution, but rather as a story of survival by tonal talents somehow enduring a long atonal winter.

But back to Poulenc, whose topic - faith leading to martyrdom in the face of the radical state - likewise had a reactionary cast to the zealots of modernism (particularly coming from a semi-closeted, haute bourgeois homosexual like Poulenc).  Now I'm not going to argue that question here; but it seems obvious at this point that the pathos of the opera's libretto, and the beauty of Poulenc's music, simply transcend the transient hobbyhorses of whatever revolutionaries we're saddled with at any particular historical moment.

The story is (roughly) a true one - the opera follows the travails of an order of Carmelite nuns in the provincial town of Compiègne as they struggle with their doubts in the face of death, and then face actual death itself, in the form of persecution from the French Revolutionary government.  After the sisters resisted the forced closure of their convent, they were imprisoned, and eventually guillotined - ironically enough, only days before the Reign of Terror collapsed.  The opera concludes with a world-famous coup de théâtre that's a brilliant musical statement, too: the nuns meet their deaths singing, marching offstage to have their voices silenced, one by one, by the descending scythe. We can't credit Poulenc, btw, for this inspired scene; the actual nuns did indeed die singing their vows back in 1794.  Nevertheless, it's one of the most gripping climaxes in all of opera - and at BU, director Sharon Daniels does it up right, wisely keeping the guillotine offstage (some productions have made the disastrous mistake of revealing it), and suppressing the melodrama of the moment to conjure an almost overwhelming sense of pathos.

Elsewhere, the dramatic work is a bit uneven.  Daniels again has done the right thing by sublimating the passions of the plot into the strictures of its text - the scenes feel like scripture, or perhaps, yes, Socratic dialogues.   But not all these young singers understand yet how to bring a suppressed emotional fire to bear on a scene, so some sequences are a bit stiff.

Others, however, are lucidly, even finely played, and the women's voices are generally strong - the men's, less so (there's often a lack of power here), although tenor John Irvin made a striking impression as the brother of Blanche de la Force, the novice whose perspective on the event Poulenc adopts.  As Blanche herself, Celeste Fraser is clearly a star in the making, with both a rich, warm soprano and a confident, intelligent stage presence.  Perhaps too confident -  I didn't quite believe in Blanche's timorousness at the opera's outset, and thus her journey from fearful recluse to calmly ardent martyr wasn't fully limned.  But Fraser was always impressive nonetheless, and there were other memorable turns from soprano Sonja Krenek as well as mezzos Lauren Ashleigh Lyles and Amanda Tarver.

Down in the pit, the instrumental results were likewise mixed, but generally rewarding.  Poulenc's music sounds rather like sacramental Debussy - and he eschews aria for exchanges that aren't quite duets, but again, feel like musical dialogues.  The original orchestration was famously lush, but at BU we got a reduced version, which was still ravishing enough.  Under the baton of William Lumpkin, most of the orchestra - particularly the strings - soared, but the horns were often garbled.  Oh, well; you can't have everything.  I also didn't care much for the fact that the text was sung in English rather than French (there are super-titles anyhow).  The appropriate set and costumes were by Eleanor Kahn and DeMara Cabrera, respectively; the evocative lighting by Yi-Chung Chen.  This traditional version of a monument to tradition makes a pretty strong case for the virtues of Poulenc - and of course the sisters of Compiègne.  If only those attitudes became more of a tradition around here!

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