Encore Michigan

Opera Modo puts Poulenc’s tragic ‘Carmelites’ on stage in two church venues

Review February 24, 2020 David Kiley

DETROIT, Mich.–Many operas move patrons to tears. Few can be described as “gut wrenching.” One of them is Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites in production now from Opera Modo.

The opera tells the story of a Carmelite convent whose nuns are condemned to death during the French Revolution. Those leading the revolution were at war against the monarchy, aristocracy and religious institutions.

Their condemnation is senseless and pointless and driven only by mass acts of violence and mayhem that included everything from the guillotining of royals and tax collectors and police to chucking entombed remains of long dead monarchs into rivers and lakes. These nuns were living prayerful, ascetic lives, doing acts of charity. But Rome and French clerics were corrupt and these nuns got in the way of angry mobs lashing out at the aristocratic church.

The opera begins in the library of the Marquis de la Force (baritone Jacob Surzyn) who is worried about his fearful daughter, Blanche (mezzo soprano Elise Ellen) who inhabits the shifting emotions of this complex character who sways between retreat and resolution with at times aching vocals. Blanche’s brother, the Chevalier de la Force (tenor Adrian Leskiw) shares his father’s concerns about Blanche.

Blanche is desirpous of going into the order out of a sense of fear and seeking security and safety. She encounters a sickly but staunch prioress, Madame de Croissy (Kimberly Hann) who warns her of seeking the nun’s life for the wrong reasons, but ultimately grants passage as she nears death.

Once in, she finds anything but safety as the dogs of the French revolution bark even louder as the convent gates than they had at her civilian villa.

Eventually, the nuns, sisters in vows a well as in spirit, seek martyrdom as they refuse to give in to the demands of the new order that they abandon their religious practices and rituals.

Between Poulenc’s writing, Danielle Wright’s directing and Stephen McGhee’s music direction and the well-acted and sung ensemble of players, a real sense of sisterhood is conveyed in the historic space of the First Christ Church of Detroit with an atmosphere of two nearly 150 years of its own religious practices. The opera performs at the more modern Kirk of The Hills in Bloomfield Hills this weekend.

Poulenc wrote the piece in the 1950s. While it includes influences of sacred music of course, it also has some suggestions at times of Neo-Classical fanfares and chorales. But most of the opera is sung in conversational recitative, which can flatten the story at times. It was a creative choice, but one that can occasionally drift into a lane of oral tedium.

This opera is understandably best known for its finale when all the sisters but one march to their demise under the blade of the guillotine, singing a version of Salve Regina. It is powerful indeed.

The opera is sung in English. Poulenc wanted the piece to be sung in the language of the venue in which it was performed. Perhaps it was to remind anyone watching it that revolution is not all its cracked up to be? A movement so angry as to treat ascetics the same as entitled monarchs because you can’t tell the difference isn’t healthy or productive for any society.

Still, the English combined with the recitative structure of the music seems to rob the music sometimes of highs and lows that are often easier to convey with a romance language.

But make no mistake in reading a few criticisms of the piece, this is a rare, unusual and compelling story to absorb in a church setting, and should not be missed by opera fans.

Week of 6/17/2024

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