Opera Review: Dialogues des Carmélites (Caramoor, July 2015)

Headline Photo

The gardens at Caramoor. (Photo by Simon Roberts)

Dialogues des Carmélites
was (to me, at least) a surprising choice for Will Crutchfield’s Caramoor Opera. Poulenc’s masterpiece falls outside what the Festival is known for (19th Century rediscoveries, especially the bel canto school). It’s a French work, of course, which is a Crutchfield specialty – but he had (at least, to the best of my knowledge) no French singers in the cast, and Dialogues is as “on the words” as any opera I know.

More important, though there’s not a lot of action, the idea of a concert semi-staging seemed odd for a piece that is so much about the quiet austerity convent life.

Nuns in a Carmelite Monastery

Nuns in a Carmelite Monastery

Crutchfield and daughter Victoria, who directed, faced a particular challenge for those who know John Dexter’s sensational 1977 Met productions – one of the greatest I’ve ever seen there, and still in the repertoire as recently as 2013. In the course of 35 years, that Dialogues has featured some very memorable portrayals, including Régine Crespin (Madame de Croissy), Shirley Verrett, Jessye Norman, Teresa Stratas (Madame Lidoine), Maria Ewing and Frederica Von Stade (Blanche), Mignon Dunn and Florence Quivar (Mother Marie)… the list goes on.

Opening scene of Dialogues des Carmélites at the Met

Opening scene of Dialogues des Carmélites at the Met

Happily, with Dialogues, Crutchfield and Caramoor had another significant success. If I remain skeptical about the concert staging – mostly well done here, though oddly costumed, and with a few touches that suggested a community theatre-scale Les Misérables – the musical values were exceptionally fine.

Some of the triumph belongs to Poulenc. Dialogues is a marvelous piece – in the vocal and orchestral writing (the latter superbly dispatched by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s), and in the storytelling. Few opera are so emotionally wrenching for an audience (especially the final scene), and though – confirmed agnostic that I am – I’m not persuaded by the dogma, I am moved by the sincerity of Poulenc’s admiration for these women, who sacrifice everything for their beliefs.

A Crutchfield tradition very much on view in Dialogues is his support of talented young singers. Here, they included, in supporting parts, tenor Nikhil Navkal and baritone Brody Del Beccaro, who confirmed the positive impression they had made in a Caramoor duets concert two weeks ago; also mezzo Vanessa Caridi, who made something lovely and memorable of Sister Jeanne. Noah Baetge (Chevalier de la Force) has a Jugendlich-Dramatisch tenor of real beauty, deployed with elegance – I hope to hear him soon in Wagner, where his skills will be rare and especially welcome.

Alongside the strong work of younger singers was Crutchfield’s imaginative casting of more established ones:

Jennifer Larmore (Mother Marie). This essentially character part seemed an odd choice for a singer still very much a leading lady, but Larmore’s tightly-wound mezzo, with it’s brilliant upper extension, proved a good fit.

Alisa Jordheim (Constance). A sparklingly lovely lyric soprano with a delightful stage presence. Sweet Sister Constance almost always wins the audience’s heart, but Jordheim made an especially positive impression.

Jennifer Check (Blanche). This is probably the trickiest role in Dialogues, as well as a pivotal dramatic one. Check got off to an edgy start, but settled into things in Act II. Still, though it’s an exciting, vibrant instrument, neither Check’s voice nor her rather placid stage presence are quite right for the emotionally turbulent, unsettled Blanche. (But it is a significant talent!)

Deborah Polaski (Madame de Croissy). A scene-stealing, one-act role for a great singing actress, Polaski is in some ways exactly what’s needed – actually, in at least one respect, more than that: at 66, her voice remains a formidably steady instrument. Her appearances in New York are too rare, and Polaski was suitably rewarded with a huge ovation.

Hei-Kyung Hong (Lidoine). More than 30 years after her Met debut, the silvery sheen of Hong’s voice and her vibrant stage presence are virtually undiminished. If there’s a slight touch of fragility now in the tone – and her beautiful voice is more lyrical than we associate with Lidoine (vocally, she and Check might have exchanged roles), Hong made it seem like aspects of the character’s struggle.

The Old and New Prioress -- Deborah Polaski (left), Hei-Kyung Hong (right)

The Old and New Prioress — Deborah Polaski (left), Hei-Kyung Hong (right)

As important as the singing is in Dialogues, the theatrical values may be even more so. Even a hint of artifice, indicating, or failing to truly listen on stage are glaringly, damagingly obvious. Poulenc’s opera deserves – in fact, can’t work without – real actors.

In this, the Old and New Prioresses – Polaski and Hong – led the way. In Polaski’s case, she makes dramatic points through a committed, take-no-prisoners sense of total immersion. No wonder Elektra is a signature role! She has a great theatre face, recalling another era – I thought of Katharine Cornell, Marian Seldes, Nancy Marchand. (If there’s ever an opera of The Sopranos, Polaski must be Livia!)

What Hong does is different – smaller, more cinematic – but utterly present and in the moment. I hope Hong continues singing for a long time – and when she retires from opera, that she takes up a career on the non-musical stage.

With these two extraordinary artists at the helm – and a more than honorable cast alongside them – Caramoor’s Dialogues was an intense, rewarding evening.

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