DHO Engages in Fascinating ‘Dialogue’

Matthew R. Schrimpf

Dunster House Opera presents “Dialogue of the Carmelites,” Francis Poulenc’s opera about a convent of nuns facing execution during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution.

One would expect an opera whose protagonist is named Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ to be excessively melodramatic. But the Dunster House Opera (DHO) production of Francis Poulenc’s 1957 modern classic, “Dialogues of the Carmelites” is anything but excessive.

Director Joshua H. Billings ’07 and producer Benjamin R. Eisler ’08 present an efficiently constructed and fantastically performed look at one of the most heartbreaking and fascinating operas of the last 75 years. The opera will continue to run next weekend.

The plot concerns a convent of French nuns on the eve of the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution. The protagonist, Blanche de la Force (Kathy D. Gerlach ’07), struggles with her beliefs, her fellow sisters, her martyrdom, and the impending fate that awaits her and the rest of the Carmelites, as they are sentenced to death in the name of the Republic.

“Dialogues” is about many things, but mainly it examines individual pain, oppression, and human frailty within the framework of a larger conflict.

While many operas have examined this struggle—from “Aida” to “Tosca,” from “Les Huguenots” to “Andrea Chenier”—this particular work observes the misguided idealism of the French Revolution that sweeps up the Carmelites, a small convent of dedicated and idealistic nuns. “Dialogues” focuses on the uncertainty and vulnerability of the sisters, intensifying their fear and pain with intimate music and unstable melodies and dialogues.

The independent, tormented Sister Blanche and the deathly ill First Prioress (Meghan D. McLoughlin ’09) dominate the first act. In particular, the natural, yet traumatic, death of the First Prioress hangs over the rest of the opera.

As a supporting character, the Prioress is rarely examined with such poignancy; but the delivery of McLoughlin’s admission that “God has renounced us” alone is worth the admission and braving the cold weather.

As the story unfolds, every character, both major and minor, manages to be moving with an unusually high degree of success. As the earnest, caring Father Confessor, Roy A. Kimmey ’09 displayed an extremely powerful musical and dramatic presence; his immediacy brought his character to life. Jessica G. Peritz ’06 as Mother Marie, Caitlin C. Vincent ’07 as Sister Constance and Catherine L. Vaughan ’08 as the Second Prioress perform with similar success.

Perhaps the best parts of the opera are the exchanges between Blanche and Mother Marie which combine good acting, challenging music, and meaningful conflict between the human spirit and God. Such emotional depth is rarely found in a modern work.

While at times, the orchestra, conducted by Ben E. Green ’06, did not carry the dramatic weight of the acting and singing because of a vulnerable and sometimes thin sound, for the most part they did not fail to stir the audience and support the singers. It seemed as if the music could fall apart at any minute, but such frailty is Poulenc’s intention.

Whether it was the sensitivity of the orchestra, the skill of the performer, or both, every time Gerlach sang, she and the orchestra came off as one aggregate instrument of pain and fear.

The stark, open set and spare staging suggests that the characters are essentially alone, and that their prayers largely go unanswered. But more importantly, DHO’s production implies that there is no higher power watching over the characters; the only redeeming note of the story, when Blanche meets Sister Constance at the scaffold to die with her, is portrayed as a small triumph of human compassion, not one of divinely inspired martyrdom.

Because the characters of this production are so alive, and want so much to be alive in the face of certain death, the opera stops just short of being harrowing. While this work is certainly capable of keeping its audience up all night in despair, it is more satisfying when not so over-the-top. In any case, the production doesn’t need to work too hard to convey the horror of the final scene, as the singing chorus of Carmelites are silenced one by one by the guillotine.

Generally, big opera houses and festivals tend to sterilize this opera, focusing on the jagged modernity of the score and the formality and inevitability of death in the libretto, while ignoring the tremendously subtle emotions that can be powerful, sad and even funny. Thankfully, DHO treats the audience to as much passion and humanity as Poulenc certainly intended.

No matter what one thinks of the psychological and religious questions raised by the opera, this production is certainly a must-see.

­—Staff writer J. Samuel Abbott can be reached at abbott@fas.harvard.edu.