Review: “Dialogues of the Carmelites” Returns to San Francisco Opera in Olivier Py’s Dark, Theatrically Absorbing Production – October 15, 2022

For the first time in 39 seasons, the San Francisco Opera has mounted Poulenc’s 1957 opera “Dialogues of the Carmelites”, a work with whom the company has a special relationship. The San Francisco Opera hosted the United States premiere in September 1957, eight months after its famously successful world premiere at Milan’s La Scala.

Heidi Stober’s Blanche de la Force

Wisconsin soprano Heidi Stober performed the role of the opera’s main protagonist – Blanche, a marquis’ daughter. Stober’s appealing lyric soprano and savvy stagecraft make her an obvious choice for any opera with a leading role played as a vibrant young woman.

Stober’s portrayal of Blanche’s anxieties demonstrates Stober’s mastery of psychologically complex roles. Her performance was vocally strong and dramatically persuasive in conveying the emotional impact of the French revolution on a religiously inclined member of a privileged family.

Below: Heidi Stober as Blanche de la Force in a novitiate’s dress; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Over the objections of her father and brother as inappropriate behavior for a member of a French noble family, the emotionally insecure Blanche is attracted to the life of a cloister of nuns. First taking part in her convent’s decision to accept martyrdom as religious institutions come under attack, then regretting it, Blanche returns home. She finds her family properties in the possession of revolutionaries, who relegate her to servant status. Devastated by the turn of events, she decides to rejoin the convent at the moment its members are being executed by Revolutionaries.

[Below: Blanche (Heidi Stober), who, as a result of the French Revolution has become a servant on what had been her family’s ancestral estate; edited image, based on a Cory Weaaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Stober has performed 13 leading roles with distinction for the San Francisco Opera over its past dozen seasons, ranging from Broadway theater’s Magnolia Hawks [Review: Aboard San Francisco Opera’s “Show Boat”: Showy Cast, Abundant Show-stoppers – June 1, 2014 and Johanna Review: Searing Performances by Brian Mulligan and Stephanie Blythe for San Francisco Opera’s First “Sweeney Todd” – September 12, 2015] and Verdi’s Nanetta [Review: Bryn Terfel Triumphs in an Authoritative “Falstaff” – San Francisco Opera, October 9, 2013] to Richard Strauss’s Zdenka [Review: Dehn and Mulligan Illumine Albery’s Stylish “Arabella” – San Francisco Opera, October 16, 2018]. 

Michaela Schuster’s Madame deCroissy and Deanna Breiwick’s Sister Constance

The contemplation of death is a theme especially associated with two of the opera’s characters,the prioress Madame deCroissy and Sister Constance, the youngest member of the order.

German soprano Michaela Schuster assumed the role of deCroissy in a bravura performance that demonstrated the range of Schuster’s dramatic power.

[Below: Michaela Schuster as Madame de Croissy; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

In one of the opera’s most compelling scenes, Schuster’s deCroissy manifests a terror of death in her final hours. That performance was made even more striking by some technical wizardry, presenting the point of view of deCroissy’s death bed on a back wall as if the audience were looking down at it from the ceiling. (The device of a bed on a back wall was last seen at San Francisco Opera for Richard Jones’ production of “Tchaikovsky’s” Pikovaia Dama” [Review: Jones the Ripper’s “Queen of Spades” at San Francisco Opera, June 12, 2005].)

[Below: on her death bed, Madame de Croissy (Michaela Schuster, on bed in upper left corner while Blanche (Heidi Stober, lower right corner) keeps her company; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The role of Sister Constance was performed, with the cheerful personality associated with the character, by Washington soprano Deanna Breiwick. Constance foresaw her own life as short, telling Blanche that she expected that they would die on the same day. Anticipating that deCrosisy’s death would be a serene one, she expressed her belief that the tortured death the prioress suffered somebody else’s death that was mistakenly given her.

[Below: Deanna Breiwick as Sister Constance; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Michelle Bradley’s Madame Lidoine and Melody Moore’s Mother Marie

Kentucky soprano Michelle Bradley, belatedly made her San Francisco Opera debut, two seasons after her originally scheduled debut as Elvira in Verdi’s “Ernani” fell victim to the cancellation of all 2020-21 season performances at the War Memorial Opera House. Bradley showed spinto power as the sucessor as prioress to the deceased Madame deCroissy.

[Below: Michelle Bradley (center, front) as Madame Lidoine; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Returning to the San Francisco Opera after a absence of several seasons was Tennessee mezzo-soprano Melody Moore, making a strong impression in the role of Mother Marie, the nun who promoted the idea of the cloisters’ members taking a vow of martyrdom.

[Below: Mother Marie (Melody Moore, left, on ground) receives some unwanted instructions from a Revolutionary commissioner (Christopher Oglesby, standing right, front); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera].

I have long admired Moore’s dramatic and vocal power, enlisted for major assignments in a world premiere [Review: Hampson’s Heroic “Heart of a Soldier” at the War Memorial – San Francisco Opera, September 10, 2011] and in operas by Wagner [Review: Ryan McKinny, Melody Moore, Jay Hunter Morris Soar in “Flying Dutchman” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 18, 2013], Verdi [Review: Gripping Portraits by Eric Owens, Melody Moore in Anne Bogart’s Staging of Verdi’s “Macbeth” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 17, 2015], and Janacek [Review: Seattle Opera Psychodrama – Melody Moore’s Magnificent Katya Kabanova, February 25, 2017]. See also Rising Stars: An Interview with Melody Moore.

Ben Bliss’ Chevalier de la Force, Dale Travis’ Marquis de la Force and Other Cast Members

The opera also highlights the reactions of the two principal male figures of Blanche’s family – her brother, a chevalier, and her marquis father.

New York lyric tenor Ben Bliss gave one of the most impressive performances of the evening, as Blanche’s chevalier brother, who sees no future in his family remaining in France. His counsel unheeded by Blanche, even after their father’s execution, he departs the country.

I have been present at several Ben Bliss performances over the past decade, during which his specialty has been Mozart’s operatic tenor roles that require extraordinary breath control and vocal expressiveness. A specialist in the Mozartian roles of Ferrando [Review: “Cosi fan Tutte” – Nicely Sung, Imaginatively Staged – San Francisco Opera, November 21, 2021], Don Ottavio [Review: Outstanding Cast for “Don Giovanni” in Kasper Holten’s Vibrantly Visual Production – Houston Grand Opera, April 27, 2019], Tamino [Review: Beautiful Singing from a Silent Screen “Magic Flute” – Los Angeles Opera, February 24, 2016] and Belmonte [Review: Kathryn Lewek Leads Strong Cast for “Abduction from the Seraglio” – Lyric Opera of Kansas City, September 27, 2019], Bliss utilized his mastery of the classical lyric repertory to execute Poulenc’s distinctive parlando compositional style.

[Below: the Chevalier de la Force (Ben Bliss) prepares his escape from Revolutionary France; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Veteran Pennsylvania bass-baritone Dale Travis, who has appeared in 17 San Francisco Opera seasons over the past 34 years, was Blanche’s father, the Marquis.

[Below: the Marquis de la Force (Dale Travis, left) with his daughter, Blanche (Heidi Stober, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Previous performances of several the cloister’s members have impressed me. California mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook, a favorite Marcellina [Review: Strong Cast, Arresting New Production for “Marriage of Figaro” – San Francisco Opera, October 13, 2019] was Mother Jeanne. North Carolina mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven, Mozart’s Annio [Review: Ovations for L. A. Opera’s “Clemency of Titus”: Impressive Singing, Stylish New Production, March 2, 2019] was Sister Mathilde.

North Carolina mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel, impressive this season as Madame Larina [Review: Robert Carsen’s Production of “Eugene Onegin”, Admirably Performed – San Francisco Opera, October 9, 2022] was Mother Gerald. Georgia soprano Esther Tonea, who recently created a role in a new Heggie opera [World Premiere Review: Jake Heggie’s Faustian Fantasy “If I Were You” – Merola Opera Program, San Francisco, August 1, 2019] was Sister Antoine.

Canadian soprano Anne-Marie Mackintosh, who excelled as Marzelline [Review: Beethoven’s “Fidelio”, An Excellent Cast for Matthew Ozawa’s Powerful Production – San Francisco Opera, October 17, 2021] was Sister Valentine. California soprano Elisa Sunshine, the “Tosca” Shepherd Boy [Review: Ailyn Pérez , Michael Fabiano, Alfred Walker, Soloman Howard Excel in a Memorable “Tosca” (with a Post-Finale Surprise) – San Francisco Opera, September 5, 2021] was Sister Anne of the Cross and California mezzo-soprano Buffy Baggott, who was one of Mao’s trio of secretaries [Review: 25 Years Old, “Nixon in China” Arrives at San Francisco Opera, June 8, 2012] was Sister Martha.

The other members of the cloister were Texas mezzo-soprano Alexandra Sanchez as Sister ClaIre, South Korea soprano Chea Kang as Sister Catherine, Canadian soprano Mikayla Sager as Sister Felicity, Georgia mezzo-soprano Gabrielle Beteag as Sister Gertrude, New Hampshire mezzo-soprano Jessalyn Thomas as Sister Alice and Wisconsin mezzo-soprano Courtney Miller as Sister Saint Charles.

A former Adler fellow, California baritone Efrain Solis, whose credits at the house include Papageno [Review: The Jun Kaneko “Magic Flute” Revived – San Francisco Opera, October 20, 2015] returned after a seven season absence as the the Marquis’ valet, Thierry, as Doctor Javelinot and as The Jailer. See Rising Stars: An Interview with Efraín Solís.

[Below: the Jailer (Efrain Solisin upper left hand corner window) reads out the birth names of the Carmelite nuns who are condemned to die; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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Other performers cited in previous reviews were Missouri tenor Brenton Ryan, an affecting novice seaman [Review: An Indomitable “Billy Budd”, San Francisco Opera, September 7, 2019], was the Chaplain. New Zealand baritone Hadleigh Adams, who earlier this season created the role of Agrippa [World Premiere Run Review: Adams’ “Antony and Cleopatra” – San Francisco Opera, September 18, 2022] and Georgia tenor Christopher Oglesby, a fine Edmondo [ Review: A Passionate “Manon Lescaut” Led by Luisotti, Haroutounian and Jagde – San Francisco Opera, November 8, 2019], were the Revolutionary Commissioners.

Maestra Eun Sun Kim and the San Francisco Opera and Chorus

Francois Poulenc’s vibrant musical score was brilliantly performed by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, under the impassioned conducting of Maestra Eun Sun Kim. The chorus, under Pennsylvania Chorus Master John Keene, representing the Revolutionary forces, performed with distinction.

Production Creator Olivier Py; Revival Director Daniel Izzo, Porduction Designer Pierre-Andre Weitz and Lighting Designer Bertrand Kelly

The production, originally created in 2013 for Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, was the conception of French director Olivier Py. Like Poulenc, a practicing Catholic, Py was drawn to the source material for the French dramatist Georges Bernanos play that became the opera libretto.

That source material included German author Gertrud von Le Fort’s novella about Mother Marie of the Carmélite order of Compiègne (north of Paris), the order’s only surviving nun after the execution of the order’s other sisters. Mother Marie’s story was about the sisters’ show of faith in a God who did not intervene in the Revolution’s social turmoil. Mother Marie’s story resonated with Bernanos and other conservative French Catholics after World War II, especially as the terrors of the Holocaust became known

[Below: Director Olivier Py; edited image of a publicity photograph.]

A predominant feature of the production are designer Pierre Andre Weitz’ white, black and dark gray walls that reflect the opera’s somber themes of death and social turmoil.

French director Daniel Izzo was responsible for the San Francisco Opera’s production revival.

The Carmelites and the San Francisco Opera

Poulenc’s work has been presented by San Francisco Opera in three previous seasons, first in the United States premiere production by Broadway designer Harry Horner with Dorothy Kirsten as Blanche, Madame de Croissy, Leontyne Price (in her operatic stage debut) as Madame Lidoine and Sylvia Stahlman as Sister Constance, then six years later in what was to be my first performance of the opera [Historical Performances: “Dialogues of the Carmelites” with Venora, Resnik, Ericsdotter – San Francisco Opera, October 26, 1963]. In 1983, the John Dexter’s renown production for New York’s Metropolitan Opera was mounted with Carol Vaness as Blanche, Regine Crespin as DeCroissy, Virginia Zeani as Mother Marie and Leontyne Price repeating her role as Lidoine.

Each of these productions was sung in English, in translations approved by Poulenc himself, as was the only other performance of the opera that I have seen, a revival of Francesca Zambello’s production for the Opéra National de Paris which she later secured for the Washington National Opera [Review: Zambello’s Production of Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” at the Kennedy Center – March 8, 2015].

The Fourth Tableau and the Opera’s Finale

Among mid-20th century operatic compositions, few have an operatic scene that can match the finale of Poulenc’s “Dialogues”. For its final scene (the Fourth Tableau), 15 of the order’s sisters sing a Salve regina as they march towards a guillotine. As each is beheaded, all the remaining nuns continue to sing. Sister Constance is the last in line, but, at the final moment, Blanche joins her, fulfilling Constance’s prediction that both will die on the same day.

For the previous productions I have seen – the 1963 Horner and 1983 Dexter productions seen in San Francisco and the Zambello production seen in Washington D.C. – the guillotine is represented. In Py’s production the 15 nuns, all dressed in white, stand together in a line facing the audience.

[Below: fifteen nuns who have chosen martyrdom have chosen to sing the “Salve Regina” as each is beheaded at the guillotine; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

As each blow of the guillotine is heard, one of the nuns makes a gesture, such as bowing their head or clutching their throat, indicating that she has just been guillotined. One by one they turn to the back wall and disappear into a starry night. Blanche joins them to end the opera.