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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Opera Review: The Heroine and the Terror

Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble mounts Dialogues des Carmelites.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
"So that's how this opera ends?" Jennifer Moore as Sister Blanche in Dialogues des Carmelites.
Photo by Angel Roy
© 2012 Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble
Presenting François Poulenc's 1953 opera Dialogues des Carmélites may seem like an insanely ambitious project for a small New York opera company. On Friday night, Christopher Fecteau's Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble did not just meet the challenges of this work (based on the real-life execution of French nuns during the Reign of Terror) but surpassed it, delivering a raw, potent performance of great clarity and simple faith.

At first glance, Carmélites is the story of Blanche, a shrinking violet born to a French aristocratic family. Clumsy, terrified and unsure of herself, she finds a safe haven in a strict order of Carmelite nuns. Their lives are destroyed by the anti-religious fervor of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. Finally, the nuns face the guillotine singing a chorus of Salve Regina, one that is ultimately silenced by the falling blade.

Jennifer Moore (heard in this company's 2010 one-off performance of Königskinder as well as last year's Ariadne auf Naxos) walked Blanche's dramatic arc in Act I, rising from a timid figure into a full-fledged dramatic heroine. She brought acting focus to the role and clarity of tone, highlighted by the simple set and minimal costumes. Poulenc's shimmering, radiant score brought forth the small joys of Blanche's friendship with Sister Constance (the fine soprano Maria Alu) and the stern guidance of the Prioress (Leanne Gonzalez-Singer) The latter's death scene at the end of Act I was wrenching, a foretaste of the dark events to come.

As Blanche survives the Prioress' death and starts to come into her own, the opera's central crisis develops: the investiture of the Carmelite cloister by the French Revolution. In these scenes, mezzo Laura Federici was a potent presence as Mother Marie, as was Mary Ann Stewart as Madame Lidoine. However, it should be noted that strong performances were given across the vocal spectrum by all of the nuns. Separately, they created splendid, if dysfunctional characters. En groupe, they radiated piety and warmth.

Although Dialogues is dominated by women, male singers made contributions too. Tenor Raphaël Treiner was in fine voice for the first act as the Chevalier, but seemed to fade in power when he reappeared in the second. Lawrence Bianco was a strong presence as the Father Confessor, who has to flee for his life after saying a last mass. As the two Commissionaires of the Revolution, tenor Gieorgios Argeratos and baritone Mathew Klauser were a nasty, intrusive presence, getting quite literally in the faces of the nuns as they invaded their cloister in the second Act.

Mr. Fecteau is to be commended for his conducting, which intensified Poulenc's musical message despite the smaller orchestra. The leitmotifs for various characters become soliloquies for lone instruments. The chamber-sized ensemble mirrors the nuns themselves, a tiny force doing battle against the void. The intensity of this arrangement carried into the potent finale.

Victoria Crutchfield's stage direction made maximum use of the close quarters of the 13th St. Theater. Everything was right up in your face, from the intrusive Revolutionaries to the Parisian vielles who provide necessary exposition through spoken dialogue in the last act. This closeness was felt most strongly in the final Salve Regina, as the nuns marched right past the audience on the way to the guillotine.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.