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
“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
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
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 email@example.com.