Reviving a production she created for the Opera National de Paris (now listed as a Washington National Opera production), Francesca Zambello assembled a major cast for Poulenc’s mid-20th century opera.
The opera explores the final days of the lives of several members of a small convent of Carmelite nuns in a Parisian suburb who are trapped in the momentous events of the French Revolution.
[Below: Blance de la Force (Layla Claire, right) expresses a wish to join the Carmelite order governed by Madame de Croissy (Dolora Zajick, left) with the aid of Mother Marie (Elizabeth Bishop, second from left); edited image, based on a Scott Suchmann photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera and the Kennedy Center.]
The Final Scene as coup de théâtre
The opera’s fame is built upon its final scene, the last of twelve scenes divided between two acts. Just prior to the final scene, the nuns take an oath of martyrdom rather than acquiesce to the destruction of their religious community by the revolutionary mobs of the Reign of Terror.
In the final scene, the nuns, who have commenced the singing of the Salve Regina, ascend one by one to the guillotine. Notoriously, each time the sound of the guillotine blade’s descent is heard, one fewer voice is heard, until all the nuns have been martyred.
The conversations of the Carmelites and Blanche’s story
Much of the opera regards the conversations of the nuns as to the nature of death, of their fears, and of their duty to God.
It is also a character study of an emotionally troubled daughter (Blanche) of an aristocrat (the Marquis de la Force) who, to the disgust of her father and brother (the Chevalier de la Force), is drawn to the life of a convent, even though her aristocratic kin regard convents as refuges for women of lower classes.
[Below: Blanche de la Force (Layla Claire, right) explains to Madame de Croissy (Dolora Zajick, left) why she, a wealthy woman, wishes to adopt the life of a Carmelite nun; edited image, based on a Scott Suchmann photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera and the Kennedy Center.]
The nuns’ conversations use the parlando style of sung speech that is a characteristic of many mid-20th century operas. The Zambello production is presented in Washington in an English version that had been personally approved by Poulenc.
The opera is quite different in musical and dramatic style from the melodramatic verismo of another opera set in the French Revolution – Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier”.
Even so, there are parallels in the characters of Blanche de La Force and Maddalena di Coigny in the Giordano opera, whose worlds and lives are disrupted by the Revolution, whose family estates are confiscated and elders slain, and who both die by the guillotine.
But most of Blanche’s experiences take place in the gentler environment of the convent, until it too is engulfed in the Revolution.
Blanche and Constance
A key plot point is a dream of the convent’s other young novitiate, Sister Constance, that Blanche and Constance will die on the same day.
Below: Blanche de la Force (Layla Claire, left) prays with her friend Sister Constance (Ashley Emerson, right); edited image, based on a Scott Suchmann photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera and the Kennedy Center.]
Blanche, agonized by the oath of martyrdom she has taken, slips away from the convent, but, returning home, discovers her family estate is now run by its servants and that she, a degraded former aristocrat, must serve them.
When Blanche next appears in the opera, Constance has ascended the guillotine as the final martyr. Blanche herself follows Constance up to the guillotine, fulfilling the prophecy of Constance’s dream that they will both die the same day.
[Below: the convent nuns have been arrested and are no longer allowed to wear their habits; edited image, based on a Scott Suchmann photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera and the Kennedy Center.]
Canadian soprano Layla Claire was believable as the “high-strung” Blanche and Ashley Emerson complemented her as her sister novitiate.
The three successive leaders of the convent are major roles that attract important artists.
Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick was Madame de Croissy, who is wracked by fear of death and dies grievously. (Sister Constance is convinced that Croissy had prepared herself for a serene death, so that she was erroneously dealt a death meant for another person.)
[Below: the nuns have assembled to sing the Salve Regina as each individual ascends the guillotine to her death; edited image, based on a Scott Suchmann photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera and the Kennedy Center.]
The new prioress, Madame Lidoine, was sung by Leah Crocetto, and proved to be yet another effective role for the talented soprano.
The psychological portrait of Mother Marie
Perhaps the most vivid impression of all the fine actor-singers that Zambello had assembled was the performance of Elizabeth Bishop as Mother Marie, the second in command in the convent while being the principal caregiver during the waning days of Zajick’s de Croissy.
Passed over for the Mother Superior role by an extraordinary external assignment of Crocetto’s Lidoine as the convent’s administrator, it was Bishop’s Marie that conceived the idea of the nun’s Vow of Martyrdom. Yet Crocetto’s Lidoine assumes the leadership of the Vow (which occurred at a time when she was not present and likely would have counseled against).
While attempting to locate Blanche, who has vowed Martyrdom but has left the convent, Bishop’s Marie is separated from the guillotined nuns. At opera’s end, she is alone on stage, the convent’s only surviving member.
Bishop’s rich mezzo-soprano and obvious insight into Mother Marie’s inner conflicts invited audience empathy with the character she was creating.
Other Notes on the Performance
I attended the scheduled fifth of six performances, although fierce snowstorms that impacted the Washington D. C. area caused the cancellation of the fourth performance three nights prior and prevented most of the audience from attending the first performance on February 21st.
The Sunday matinee took place on the first warm day in some time (many audience members spent the intermission strolling on the Kennedy Center patio overlooking the Potomac River).
Sheila Nadler was Mother Jeanne. The other women of the convent included Aleksandra Romano as Sister Mathilde, Suzanne S. Chadwick as Sister Felicite, Jihanna Charlton Davis as Sister Marthe, Jennifer Cherest as Sister Gertrude, Aleksandra Christoforakis as Sister Catherine, Cynthia Cook as Sister Anne de la Croix, Raquel Gonzalez as Sister Claire, Madeleine Gray as Mother Gerald, Annadaire Ingram as Sister St Charles, Tricia Lepofsky as Sister Antoine, Kaerriann Orano as Sister Valentine and Alia Waheed as Sister Alice,.
The victims of the Revolution also included Alan Held as the Marquis de la Force and Shawn Mathey (very effective in his two scenes) as the Chevalier, Robert Baker as the Chaplain and James Shaffram as Thierry.
The revolutionaries included Christian Bowers as the Officer and a Commissioner, Yi Li as a Commissioner and Aleksey Bogdanov as the Jailer,
The conductor Antony Walker assured a sympathetic reading of Poulenc’s score. [For my conversations with Walker, see: Revisiting Conductor Antony Walker at Santa Fe Opera’s “Ranch” and Interviewing Conductor Antony Walker on Undervalued Masterpieces – and His Unexpected Celebrity.]
The sets by Hildegard Bechtler allowed for a smooth flow between the six scenes of each act. The costumes by Claudie Gastine lent themselves to the artistic tableaux into which the Carmelite sisters were on occasion assembled.
I recommend this well-sung and well-acted performance of an important mid-20th century work, of which every serious opera-goer should have knowledge.