San Francisco Opera 2022 Review: Dialogues of the Carmelites
Heidi Stober Delivers in Performance Full of Comfort & ConfidenceBy Lois Silverstein
Remarkable. Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” opened at the San Francisco Opera War Memorial Opera House for the first time since the 1980s. We were strangers as the curtain rose, far away in time and belief, conviction, and the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution.
Yet we were also familiars, who knew in our hearts and minds the passion and devotion of Francis Poulenc’s story, which premiered at La Scala in 1957. There was nothing garish or falsely melodramatic, though there could have been. The work remained tasteful, contained, and stirring—a catholic story in the best meaning of the term.
French Director Olivier Py helmed the production, which was revived at SFO by Daniel Izzo. The show was artfully designed and masterfully managed. Dark, moving panels slid open to reveal a vista of slender white trees, through which a ribbon of somberly clad women–the Sisters of Compiegne, Carmelite nuns—moved artfully in and out. Here then was the opera, 12 scenes in three acts, with musical interludes between. Production Designer Pierre-André Wet designed sets and costumes, with lighting designed by Bertrand Killy, all making their company debut.
Poulenc derived his libretto from the work of Georges Bernanos, the French Catholic author of “The Diary of a Country Priest,” which was inspired by a novella by Gertrud von le Fort and a scenario by Philippe Agostini and Rev. Bruckberger. With this, he combined the spiritual pilgrimage of Blanche de la Force, a daughter of an aristocratic family, who joins the Order out of her own fears. That Blanche didn’t escape but martyred herself along with them is the dramatic culmination of her story and the rest of ours. The words Liberté and Egalité devant Dieu were simply chalked on one panel as a reminder.
Although the philosophical and theological discussion dragged some of the early action in Act one, it grounded us in the substance upon which Poulenc’s opera was built. SFO’s production was sung in French, with English subtitles. While other shows often use the language of the country where the opera was performed, emphasizing the universality of the theme. All, however, aim at conveying a story of sacrifice, dedication, and commitment, set within a time of anarchy.
The opera’s high points were two scenes: Michaela Schuster, making her San Francisco Opera debut, singing Madam de Croissy, was bound by taut sheets in a perpendicular bed within a white cell. The bed hung on a wall, center stage, facing death and the audience. The dramatization was stunning. Schuster’s voice dipped and soared as her character wrestled with her impending demise. Torn between not wanting to be seen by “her daughters” in such a vulnerable state but unable to be seen any other way, Schuster sang from deep inside, while her gestures alluded to the Crucifixion itself, emphasizing both her physical and her emotional agony. She butted heads with the God she thought she knew until that moment when humility pulled her back into its arms. With her arms spread wide, death came, and when it arrived, her face was white without makeup, and her white hair shorn. It was extraordinary. As Blanche de la Force did onstage, falling to your knees was about all you could do.
The second highlight was the Finale, featuring a line-up of the sixteen nuns against the backdrop of a starry sky as the astonishing sound of slashing cymbals evokes the guillotine. One by one, the nuns succumbed to its cutting blade, which dazzled in the darkness with the radiance of its light. With its creative semi-circle of women, the hymn they sang was broken into with the merciless murder of each Carmelite.
Leading the Way
Turning attention to the principal singers, Blanche de la Force was elegantly sung by soprano Heidi Stober. Stober showed her skill at adapting throughout the opera; humble and skittish, pious and devout, recalcitrant and determined, artful and buoyant. “Who said I can’t be what I say I am?” she barked to her brother, Chevalier de la Force, sung by tenor Ben Bliss, with his bright ringing sound. “I will not be an object of your pity anymore. See me here.”
Her voice coaxed and cajoled, and we followed easily as she applied herself to the great and grave task at hand. She illustrated the arc of her conflict by frequently falling on the floor, kneeling and defying, and singing, all the while with an emotional richness that conveyed her step-by-step commitment.
Her conviction rose to completion in the final moment when she returned to her sisters at the guillotine. There, she stood staunchly and no longer filled with doubt. She was indeed a “Sister of the Agony of Christ,” no longer filled with self-pity but humble in totality.
Deanna Breiwick made her San Francisco Opera debut, singing Sister Constance. Her high and bright sound served as a perfect foil to the continued severe piety of Blanche de la Force. It also worked to illustrate her oscillation between “amusement” and self-abasement—an all too human stance. Poulenc didn’t waste his time on artful duets here either; he had two novices counterpoint each other in discussion and dialectic, making sure we saw and heard their hearts beating in opposite unity. The two in debate resounded with thought and spirit, one examining what one writer called a “transfer of grace” by which one human death can redeem another.
Michelle Bradley, who also made her San Francisco Opera debut, gave an outstanding performance as Madame Lidoine; Melody Moore sang the role of Mother Marie; and Dale Travis portrayed the Marquis de la Force, Blanche’s father. Each furthered not only the imperatives of the overall dialogue of the opera but also the human, the anarchic, and the pristine purity of the transpersonal.
Blending it Together
SFO’s Eun Sun Kim conducted, fusing the disparate elements with energy. She did not mince “notes” as she moved briskly through the score, fully committed to each vignette. The music was rich and varied. Kim kept it moving without faltering. Still, this remained a challenge because of the opera’s episodic narration. The difficulty was how to weave it together into one organic organism. Sometimes Kim seemed to solve that with speed, which slurred moments that could have benefitted from a slower pace and more absorbing contemplation. Pacing, however, was key, and she executed it with aplomb.
Act one took a lot of time with the conventional story of escaping from political and revolutionary trouble into religious havens, which isn’t a new solution to a very human problem. Still, here, the commitment was genuine, and the musical storyline prepared the next steps of the narration. Kim’s answer to any disparateness she solved was to keep a firm grip on all the elements. Majesty and steadiness prevailed in the dialogues between Mother Marie and Blanche, accenting the necessity of holding steady and not turning sorrow back into shame nor disdaining yourself.
The whole production, led by the music, sustained a tight but not rigid grip throughout, sustaining the delicacy of thought and feeling, even in the face of force and violence. Perhaps that was why we left the theater renewed and recommitted ourselves, even the non-believers among us. To what? To what brings sturdiness and beauty to our hearts and to meaning, which—even though we create it—brings us not only comfort but confidence.