The University of Utah’s Lyric Opera Ensembles’ production of Dialogues of the Carmelites was my first opera. No one warned me that I would need to bring a box of Kleenex.
In March I was invited to a production run through of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. I sat among cast members and a hand full of friends on a small set of bleachers three feet from the stage. The actors and singers were dressed in street clothes and props were minimal, but it was pretty exciting to be given an exclusive peek into this great work in progress!
Dialogues of the Carmelites was sung in French and I only understood a few words here and there. I didn’t know the storyline. I didn’t understand the full nature of the relationships or what specifically was happening throughout the performance, but I was completely absorbed by the passion and emotion of all that was playing out before me. At the end of the evening, I had a lump in my throat, my stomach was in knots and I was searching my bag for tissues.
A month later, and the day before the public concert, I attended the Dialogues dress rehearsal. It’s amazing what you miss when you don’t have the translation!
I sat in the balcony level where I was able to see the full stage and cast. As with the run through that I had seen a month prior, the cast was the same this evening. The two-act opera began with two men on stage singing… in French… but voilà! There were supertitles above the stage. Now I was able to understand fully what was going on!
I was pleased to see the role of the father (Marquis de la Force) being played by Timothy Joel Carter. I had seen Carter in the Lyric Opera Ensemble’s Le Nozze di Figaro earlier in the year and had become an instant fan. His deep baritone voice was so rich, so strong, so memorable! Having seen and heard him in the earlier run through of Dialogues, it was nice to finally understand what he was singing. And kudos to stage make-up; his 50-year old character bore little resemblance to the young 20-something Carter!
The lead character in Dialogues of the Carmelites is Blanche de la Force. Both times I saw the performance, soprano Kate Smith played the role of Blanche. The basic storyline (to the best of my understanding) is that Blanche is the daughter of a wealthy family and lives with her father (Carter) and brother. Blanche believes that she is called to serve God and moves into the convent with the Carmelite Nuns.
As Blanche lives with the Nuns she becomes accustomed to her new life of service, but she still has moments of conflict, which are apparent when her brother comes to visit. Her brother urges her to leave, concerned for her safety during this time of the French Revolution, but Blanche refuses.
The government soon comes in and declares that the convent must be dismantled and the Nuns must leave the order and live as commoners. While the Nuns are resigned to do this, in a moment of politics rather than logic (in my opinion), assistant prioress Mother Marie proposes that the Nuns take a vow of martyrdom. In agreement, the Nuns determine their own fate and believing that their death will show their strength, courage, belief in God, and service to their country, they give their lives to the guillotine.
Kate Smith was wonderful in the role of Blanche. Her voice was strong, and she showed great emotion. I felt her conflict and her pain, especially when she learned of her father’s death (also by guillotine).
I found the most emotionally draining part of the opera to be the final scenes when the Nuns go to the guillotine. The stage is dark but for a light in the shape of a cross and the guillotine at the back of the stage. One by one, the Nuns, singing Salve Regina, slowly take a place on the cross, attach a red ribbon to their necks (a depiction of their death I think), lower to their knees, and upon a loud, sharp sound of a blade, drop their heads as the guillotine falls.
During this time, the remaining cast members were flanked on either side of the balcony aisles, singing a low, solemn, and very eerie song. I don’t know what it was, but it sent chills up my spine!
Blanche, having previously left the convent to be with her family, returns in time to see her sisters fall. She slowly takes her place at the front of the cross, and whooosh! Blanche’s voice is silenced as the guillotine falls for the last time.
Dialogues of the Carmelites lasts approximately three hours and there is a lot to the story. There are many incredibly talented singers, and some really spectacular scenes. The Utah Philharmonia, led by Dr. Robert Baldwin (the University of Utah’s new interim Music Director), was wonderful and the Lyric Opera Ensemble welcomed back director and long-time Lyric Opera friend Michael Scarola to lead the Ensemble in this grand production.
Dialogues of the Carmelites is an emotional opera and the University of Utah’s Lyric Opera Ensemble is outstanding. There were some 40+ cast members each night, and two different casts. The production was a great accomplishment and one worthy of additional performances outside of Kingsbury Hall. I’m so honored I had the chance to attend the run through and then the dress rehearsal. To see the artists behind the scenes was a great gift and I’m grateful to Dr. Robert Breault for the opportunity. I can’t wait to see what they have in store next year!
Congratulations to Michael Scarola, Dr. Robert Breault, Jeffrey Price, Dr. Robert Baldwin, the cast members and the Lyric Opera Ensemble team. Or should I say, Bravo! Absolutely amazing! See more photos of Dialogues of the Carmelites here.
Photos courtesy of Robert Breault.
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