One of the thrilling parts in my operatic journey is experiencing for myself a phenomenon that I have either read or been told about. Hearing how a composer’s music impacted an individual, or the way that a revered artist created an unforgettable effect, I find myself quietly hoping that these stories will one day become my own. With that knowledge in mind, it is a special pleasure when, while seating in the auditorium, the heart suddenly opens and rushes an excited message to the brain: “THIS magical thing is actually happening, and I am conscious of it as it is occurring.” Coupled with the realization that every great composer has a unique musical language, able to potentially unlock a special part of your heart, it is no surprise that some people such as myself become obsessed with this wonderful, generous art form. This is exactly what happened to me after attending performances of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites at the Des Moines Metro Opera last week. Prior to these performances, my experience with Poulenc had been (to my embarrassment) restricted to several samplings of his inventive songs in the recital hall. Thus, the Des Moines Metro Opera performances of July 13 and 15 marked the first times that I have witnessed a stage production of this work, and I found myself moved in the way that I had been alerted I would be: I felt cleansed. Poulenc’s musical expression served as a palate cleanser between rounds of operatic courses, absolving me all from the sinful operatic e-flats and excessive roulades that I may have picked along the way by systematically emptying his brand of pure, refreshing music over the soul, washing it clean with purity and lightness.
These performances took place at the Blank Performing Arts Center, which seats 466. Alongside the decision to present the work in its English translation, the company provided a unique opportunity to experience this work in an intimate setting. The two and a half hour affair, filled with complex musical textures, seemed to weigh heavily in the mind of conductor David Neely from the moment he raised his baton. A palpable effort to conform to a time signature hovered over the pit in an audible way. While he deserves credit for keeping the large orchestra on the same metric page, he accomplished this at the expense of fluidity, at times emphasizing the structure rather than the melodic gestures these are intended to support. His approach also leaned towards the bombastic, which undermined the transparency required for the work of the voices to shine forth. Still, though no great orchestral interpretation or point of view was delivered from the pit, things functioned well enough to deliver a successful evening. A similar mark applied to the work of director Dugg McDonough. Assisted by stage designer Robert Little, Mr McDonough’s vision for the opera was realized mostly through spare means, a set of columns and arches created the suggestion of the nun’s dwellings, while the Marquis de la Force’s library was made possible by means of a candelabra and an upholstered armchair.
This approach shifted more responsibility towards the singers, who remained faithful to the emotional cues dictated by the libretto. When Mr McDonough moved away from his otherwise naturalistic approach, the proceedings became less cohesive. At arbitrary moments, groups of characters randomly froze in their places in sync, seemingly coordinated to gestures from the orchestra. Such choreography was seen at its most overt during the dramatic final scene of the opera. Set against a bare stage, each victim came to her end by walking towards the orchestra pit (an imaginary line created by the shadow of the proscenium being the kiss of death). This made for a striking photo finish, but when compared with all that had gone before it, it seemed rather disconnected. An effective handling of this scene, under the hands of Marthe Keller for Opera du Rhin back in 1999, may have served as inspiration for Mr. Keller.
For the most part, the opera was appropriately cast. The evening’s emotional and musical epicenter, the character of Blanche de la Force, was entrusted to soprano Jane Redding. Hers was a pliant, sweet lyric voice, which retained much of its attractive color throughout its range, and at times reached ravishing heights. An accomplished artist, she achieved much of the nuance required by this long, difficult score. For instance, when the mother superior muses that the rigors of the order do not seem to dissuade the young girl, she ascended to a series of piano F# marked subito in the phrase “They attract me!” The voice also achieved a gossamer quality, best heard during the duet “Qui lazarum resuscitasti”, and when she pressed to express dispair, such as in the extended duet with the Chevalier in the second act, the instrument attained the necessary sonority without losing its lovely color. In short, she was a joy to hear for the majority of the evening.
However, though the musical hurdles were generally well delivered, her overall impersonation registered as a significant professional accomplishment rather than a deeply felt artistic journey, and so the soul of the troubled and nervous Blanche (a character that Poulenc himself saw much of himself in), ultimately proved elusive. This was doubly frustrating when the ear recognized in her assumption the possibilities of an extraordinary musico-dramatico experience being so close, but yet no cigar. A quick glance at the soprano’s repertoire may hold the key to this disconnect. She has gathered much praise as Rossini’s Rosina, Strauss’ Zerbinetta, Bernstein’s Cunegonde, and it may be that she is at heart a natural comedienne. Ultimately, I recognized a singer with the means to move towards heartfelt expression, and this brand of realization is the reason why strange people like me get up in the morning.
Blanche de la Force spends much of her time onstage alongside the simple yet fascinating character of Sister Constance, portrayed in these performances by soprano Lindsay Ohse. In contrast to Ms. Redding, Ms. Ohse opted for a more forward vocal production, which yielded two extremes. At best, the sound soared through the auditorium with a crystalline, pointed tone, which characterized her opening scene with in act one and culminated in the lovely phrases “I did not think what I said would give offense”. At worst, it was pressed beyond its comfort zone and the pitch was compromised at the top of the range, such as in the duet with Blanche: “Qui lazarum resuscitasti”. Under the direction of Mr. McDonough, the character’s carefree nature was overemphasized, resulting in a dramatic disconnect as Constance offered some of her most profound statements. These shortcomings aside, there were moments when the beam of crystal overshadows the brittle qualities of its constitution, and yielded lasting beauty.
But here, the casting came to an impasse. As the Prioress (Madame de Croissy), Mezzo-soprano Sondra Kelly was guilty of an overpowering declamation that rarely scaled down, to the point that one wondered why the rest of the nuns found her character endearing. During her first meeting with Blanche, a large but worn sound prevailed. This discrepancy grew exponentially during the scene in the infirmary, which certainly calls for a tortured expression but nothing as excessive as was presented. That McDonough placed the scene in the portion of the stage that penetrates the auditorium did not improve matters, since this accentuated the extremes even further. I am known to enjoy my share of vocal Grand Guignol, but the orchestration closing the scene indicated that a more restrained handling would have served better.
Assessing the singing of Blythe Gaissert as Mother Marie leads me to more troubled waters. Her gritty mezzo-soprano was of a much smaller scale than some of her cast mates, and as heard on both evenings the voice had a wiry and unsettled constitution. Furthermore, her instrument gained a frayed quality when tested at the top of the range, and to the detriment of her efforts it was tested a lot. The role requires a singer able to negotiate a high tessitura (Mother Marie was, after all, sung by the Italian soprano Gigiola Frazzoni when the work premiered in Milan), and though Ms. Gaissert projected an alert stage presence, my memento of her assumption yields little joy. At one point, Blanche describes Mother Marie as being “kind and gentle”, and one wondered what gave her such impression. Thankfully, the introduction of a new character turned the uneven proceedings into a more gratifying evening.
Towards the end of the first act, Madame Lidoine is appointed to the order of the Carmelites under the role of new Prioress. This role, though short in length, provides the artist with the nearest approximations to isolated solos, and is considered by many to be the prima donna assignment in the opera. In this production, she was exuberantly realized by soprano Brenda Harris. Already noted as an exceptional Norma (see two entries below) and known to the Des Moines audience as Agathe in Weber’s Der Freischutz and Verdi’s Lady Macbeth, Ms. Harris made use of her remarkable soprano to create a character that was tender, thoughtful and ultimately heroic.
Her introductory arioso “My dearest daughters, I must tell you again” found her in ample voice capable of negotiating her tones without much preparation: At times, notes just appeared, propelled by an inner momentum rather than any apparent edge. Her stage deportment was kind and welcoming, creating a contrast with the severe Mother Marie with whom she experiences some tension. Indeed, a glimpse of Ms. Harris’s dramatic soprano was flashed as she squashed an uncomfortable exchange with Mother Marie with a sudden ascend to a forte high Bb (It understandably ceased Mother Marie’s questioning immediately). Towards the end of the opera, she addressed the imprisoned Carmelites in the extended scene at the Conciergerie “My daughters, we have almost come to the end”. Here, Ms. Harris made good use of her luminous tones to both comfort her spiritual brood and give insight to her character’s unsettled state. Following the announcement by the jailer that the nuns have been condemned to death (wonderfully articulated by Brandon Hendrickson), she finished with well-poised heroic tone, and reconciled the impending death with the final words “With my maternal blessing forevermore” by means of an F# pianissimo of world class caliber, magically preparing us all for the spiritual and brutal end that was to follow.
The remaining principal roles were well served by two capable artists. In the role of the Chevalier de la Force, tenor Chad A. Johnson cut a tall, striking figure onstage. His is a light lyric tenor with a secure handling of head voice projection appropriately used throughout this French score, though a better connection of it with the rest of his voice would increase his possibilities. He wonderfully bore down emotionally against his sister during their meeting in the second act, and the voice soared with the orchestra in an exciting manner. He was wonderfully alert during the introductory scene of the opera, where he and the Marquis de la Force, played here by Tony Dillon, provided pivotal exposition to the audience.
On his end, Mr. Dillon’s light basso cantabile was consistently sensitive to the complexities of his limited yet important role: It casually dismissed his son’s concerns, then flashed towards the terrifying memory of his wife’s death, and it finally became tender as the father consoled his nervous daughter. His presence credits a company that, not having the means to offer luxurious distractions, focuses instead in presenting the key element required to deliver a powerful night at the opera: Great, honest singing. For this alone, the Des Moines company should remain in the radar of any operagoer, and though their season has now come to a close, their up and coming 50th anniversary season will offer performances of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Puccini’s La Rondine, and Mozart’s Don Giovanni. For more information, please visit http://www.desmoinesmetroopera.org/.