Friday, May 31, 2013

The Dialogues of the Carmelites at the Met Opera

I mentioned yesterday that The Catholic Answer Magazine's cover illustration for my article on the Carmelites of Compiegne was a scene from Poulenc's opera The Dialogues of the Carmelites. The opera was recently revived at the Metropolitan Opera in NYC for three performances, in the John Dexter staging that dates from 1977 (the year I graduated from high school!).

The Wall Street Journal ran this Associated Press review:

One of the most harrowing final scenes in all of opera is the ending of Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites," when the nuns condemned by the French Revolution walk one by one to the scaffold, singing a gradually thinning chorus punctuated by the slashing sounds of a guillotine.

So emotionally drained was the audience at Saturday afternoon's performance at the Metropolitan Opera that silence lingered in the house for several moments after the curtain fell. Only then did tumultuous applause erupt for the terrific performance that had just taken place. . . .

Dexter's staging looks barely touched by time and remains a marvel of simplicity, starting with the opening image of 13 nuns lying prostrate with arms outstretched on a raised wooden platform shaped like a cross. It reportedly cost less than $100,000 at the time — mere pocket change compared with many lavish and less effective productions that have come and gone from the Met stage since.

And Terry Teachout commented further on the Dexter staging in another article:

The Metropolitan Operarecently presented a three-performance run of "Dialogues of the Carmelites," Francis Poulenc's 1957 opera about a group of nuns who were guillotined in the French Revolution. It was a revival of John Dexter's 1977 production, not a new staging, but I didn't hear anyone complaining. Mr. Dexter's "Dialogues" is universally regarded by connoisseurs as one of the Met's greatest theatrical achievements. It's also, so far as I know, the only stage production by Mr. Dexter, who died in 1990, that continues to be performed. Since he was a much-admired director who was responsible, among other things, for the original Broadway productions of "Equus" and "M. Butterfly," that makes "Dialogues" important by definition.

In a way, "Dialogues" is a kind of operatic time capsule. Long an international byword for artistic conservatism, the Met was notoriously slow to embrace contemporary stagecraft. Not so the modern-minded Mr. Dexter, who had become the company's director of productions in 1974 and was endeavoring to update its creaky style. The stark, monumental-looking set for "Dialogues," which was designed by David Reppa, was a slap in the face to old-fashioned operagoers who preferred big, fancy sets with imitation trees. Today it looks classic, in much the same way that such masterpieces of midcentury modernism as, say, Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building or Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim long ago ceased to look "modern," at least in the informal sense that most people have in mind when they use the word. They aren't shocking anymore—they're just beautiful.

The Metropolitan Opera provides a program .pdf with a synopsis, analysis and performance history, including notes about its fascinating creative provenance with a libretto by the composer, based on a screen play by Georges Bernanos, based a on a novella by Gertrude von le Fort. More on the opera here.

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