When Talking Heads Are Sisters
The Dialogues of the Carmelites, with words and music by Francis Poulenc and based after a play by Georges Bernanos is a through-composed opera with accessible music that has occasional flourishes common to film music. On February 23, 2015, the Dresser saw Washington National Opera's company premiere production under the direction of WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello and the baton of Antony Walker leading the WNO orchestra.
The libretto rendered in clunky English (but approved by Poulenc as the official English translation) concerns Blanche de la Force (ably sung by Canadian soprano Layla Claire) a young aristocratic woman born in fear transferred from her mother whose carriage was attacked by an angry mob. The attack resulted in Blanche's birth and her mother's death. The historic setting of this story is the French Revolution. In an act of courage, Blanche tells the Marquis de la Force, her father, (American bass-baritone Alan Held) that she will join the order of the Sisters of Carmel.
Act I, which sets up convent life for Blanche including a budding friendship with a jovial novitiate named Constance (American soprano Ashley Emerson), is overall static but greatly enlivened by Emerson's performance in the laundry scene. Much to Blanche's horror, Constance tells Blanche that they will die together. Act I also includes Blanche's visit to the dying prioress Madame de Croissy (American mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick), who considers Blanche her late-life daughter. The prioress tells Blanche that the convent is not a refuge from life but a house of prayer. While this mother superior has dealt with death every day of her life, she dies in terror mirroring the death of Blanche's biological mother. While Zajick gives a wrenching performance, the Dresser suspects something more tactile involving Blanche might have helped to ratchet up the intensity of the prioress' death and to move act I from its scenes of talking heads.
While Act I has the beautiful a cappella Ave Maria sung by the sisters for departed Madame de Croissy, Act II has much more musical variety. The opening scene moves into an impassioned duet between Blanche and her brother, the Chevalier de la Force (American tenor Shawn Mathey). Mathey as the Chevalier is impressive in laying out his plea to his beloved sister to flee France with him before she is swept up by the revolutionaries and killed. Claire as the beleaguered overprotected little sister holds her ground and pushes back telling her brother she feels safe with the Carmelite community. The last scene where all the sister go one by one to the guillotine is colored by a lush musical composition unlike any other in the opera.
For the Dresser, what stands out for this production is the overall excellent performances by the entire cast, the moving sets that seem classical in their contours, and the use of light to emphasize shadow.
In Belle Waring's poem "Baby Random," the reader meets a nurse who serves those who cannot serve themselves, including an AIDs-afflicted infant and doctor-in-training who is scared about causing this child more harm. Like The Dialogues of the Carmelites, Waring's poem is about fear, courage, and nightmares.
tries a nosedive, kamikaze,
when the intern flings open the isolette.
The kid almost hits the floor. I can see the headline:
DOC DUMPS AIDS TOT. Nice save, nurse,
Why thanks. Young physician: "We have to change
his tube." His voice trembles, six weeks
out of school. I tell him: "Keep it to a handshake,
you'll be OK." Our team resuscitated
this Baby Random, birth weight
one pound, eyelids still fused. Mother's
a junkie with HIV. Never named him.
Where I work we bring back terminal preemies,
No Fetus Can Beat Us. That's our motto. I have
a friend who was thrown into prison. Where do birds
go when they die? Neruda wanted to know. Crows
eat them. Bird heaven? Imagine the racket.
When Random cries, petit fish on shore, nothing
squeaks past the tube down his pipe. His ventilator's
a high-tech bellows that kicks in & out. Not
up to the nurses. Quiet: a pigeon's outside,
color of graham crackers, throat oil on a wet street,
wings spattered white, perched out of the rain.
I have friends who were thrown into prison, Latin
American. Tortured. Exiled. Some people have
courage. Some people have heart. Corazon.
After a shift like tonight, I have the usual
bad dreams. Some days I avoid my reflection in store
windows. I just don't want anyone to look at me.
First published in Off course: A Literary Journey
Copyright © 2000 Belle Waring
Photos: Scott Suchman