Photo credit: Ken Howard, AP Photo
As the curtain rose on the revival of John Dexter’s production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites at the Metropolitan Opera this week, a group of 13 nuns laid prostrate on a slab of stone flooring in the shape of a cross. The cloaked figures were immobile through the deafening silence, rising only as the orchestral prelude begins. The image was immediately evocative and ultimately foreshadows the opera’s grisly end.
Unfortunately, the production only went downhill from there.
Originally launched in 1977, John Dexter’s minimalist set design was purposefully created in stark contrast to the gilded and overly ornate Franco Zeffirelli productions that had risen to great fame at the Met, emblematic for their cinematic set pieces and fussy costume designs. And while its historical context should be taken into perspective, Dexter’s vision hasn’t held the test of time, reading as cold, hollow, and plainly uninteresting by today’s standards.
With the cross-shaped flooring in place for the entire production, the audience moves through an aristocratic manor, as well as a convent’s parlor, workroom, and chapel by bringing shoddy set pieces up and down the stage. While many theatrical productions thrive on letting the audience put the final pieces together in their own mind’s eye, a brown cross painted on what looks to be a plywood backing hardly makes for a chapel interior.
Saving the audience from a miserable three hours was the brilliant cast assembled, as well as Mostly Mozart’s music director, Louis Langrée, leading the orchestra in a colorful reading of the work. Isabel Leonard made for a well-conceived Blanche, with her bell-like soprano delivering the naiveté of the character as she seeks refuge from the rebel forces in the Carmelite convent, only to be driven away by the rebel’s anti-religious decrees. David Pittsinger was confident as Blanche’s brother, the Chevalier, whose sense of drama and vocal blend with Leonard were captivating during their duet in the second act, as he plead with Blanche to leave the convent before its fall to the revolutionary forces.
However, it was Felicity Palmer’s performance as the ailing Prioress that was the emotional core of the opera—a crazed race to the death that had Palmer writhing in pain as she questioned her religion and relayed brutal feelings of abandonment by her God.
The opera’s final scene—perhaps the most upsetting ending in all of opera—was the only moment where the strength of the cast was supported by the set design in any way. Amidst the crowd of rebels, the nuns were led one by one to the guillotine after taking a vow of martyrdom, and each singer’s procession up the spine of the cross-shaped flooring was chilling.
The lush and Impressionistic qualities of Poulenc’s score merit a production that matches those qualities throughout, however. The action of the final scene can stand on its own in terms of visceral emotional power, but the other two and a half hours should have its plot similarly complemented by the onstage elements. Given the fact that Dialogues was one of only two 20th-century opera programmed at the Met this season, it certainly shouldn’t have been made to look like an ancient relic far beyond its years.