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Simply overwhelming

'Dialogues des carmélites'
at Palm Beach Opera


Francis Poulenc's 1957 opera Dialogues of the Carmelites is one of the true masterpieces of twentieth century music theater. The libretto by Georges Bernanos raises disturbing questions about faith in a troubled world. The story is set in the era of the French Revolution. A group of Carmelite nuns sacrifice themselves at the guillotine rather than give up their faith. At the center of the tale is Blanche de la Force, a young noblewoman who joins the convent to escape from the unstable world around her. In many ways Blanche is a metaphor for the composer, who had to deal with his own crisis of faith and his quest for acceptance in the larger artistic world. Poulenc composed his most deeply personal, haunting score -- music that illuminates both the agony and goodness of his characters. The lyricism and power of this opera are unique. The simplicity of the final scene (as the nuns sing Salve Regina and exit one at a time, the harsh sound of the guillotine in the orchestra) is simply overwhelming. This deeply moving work received a stellar production (seen on 27 February 2004) by the Palm Beach Opera at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, USA.

The classic John Dexter-David Reppa production (from New York's Metropolitan Opera) is filled with unforgettable imagery. From the opening tableaux of the nuns lying prostrate on a crucifix shaped platform through the insular convent scenes, this production (directed here by Max Charruyer) manages to bring remarkable intimacy to an epic story. Dexter's minimalist production concentrates the drama directly on the singers' communicative power. The subtle, darkly beautiful lighting (by Gary Marder) adds atmosphere to the drama.

The soaring beauty of Poulenc's music was given splendid voice by a uniformly excellent cast and an exceptional orchestra and chorus. Julius Rudel conducted eloquently. He has had long experience with this score. Rudel first produced Carmelites in the 1960s at the New York City Opera. In the 1980s he conducted the opera at the Metropolitan (with a cast that included Maria Ewing and Regine Crespin). Rudel coaxed lush string sonorities from his ensemble. He also caught the taut astringency of the mounting tension in the second act. His sense of dramatic momentum and rhythmic urgency was splendid. Superb conducting by one of opera's true veterans! (Rudel is now in his sixth decade on the podium of the world's opera houses.)

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Copyright © 6 March 2004 Lawrence Budmen, Miami Beach, USA


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