Yesterday afternoon, the Metropolitan Opera revived Dialogues of the Carmelites, Poulenc’s masterpiece from 1957. The company’s production is that of John Dexter, from 1977.
Think of it: the production came twenty years after the opera. We are now forty-six years from the premiere of the production. (I am not casting aspersions on the production, which is an excellent one. I am merely having fun with numbers.)
Sitting in the house yesterday, before the curtain opened, I thought of great performances in Met Dialogues past: the First Prioress of Dame Felicity Palmer, for one; the Constance of Heidi Grant Murphy, for another.
It was the desire of the composer that the opera be performed in the language of the audience. Dialogues premiered, not in Paris, but in Milan, at La Scala. Singing the New Prioress (a.k.a. Madame Lidoine) was Leyla Gencer, who was in fact making her Scala debut. She would be known as the “Queen of the Pirates,” because she made so few commercial recordings—and the pirates were prized by opera fans.
So, the premiere was in Italian. Then came the Paris premiere, in French. The New Prioress on that occasion was Régine Crespin. Shortly after came the U.S. premiere, in English. It was in San Francisco and featured, as the New Prioress, a new soprano: Leontyne Price.
Throughout her career, Price would sing the character’s aria in English and French, both. Poulenc’s songs, of course, she sang only in French. You know, I’m not sure I’ve heard a better Poulenc singer than this one, from Laurel, Mississippi.
These days, the Metropolitan Opera is performing Dialogues in French, although I personally don’t think it loses much, or anything, in English.
What do you want this opera to sound like? How do you think this score should be? I think it ought to be subtle, anxious, beguiling, lulling, mesmerizing, hypnotic. A spell ought to be cast. And then, of course, there are terrified, and terrifying, outbursts. At the end, there is a terrible, terrible inexorability—near metronomic—as the sisters meet their fates with the Salve Regina.
How did the opera go yesterday? Fine. It was all right. But I have a feeling that Maestro Bertrand de Billy and his forces can do much better. And that they will do so as this new run of performances continues. The spell was never quite cast, at least in my mind. And some of the orchestra’s playing was sloppy. There were too many smudged entrances, for example.
But you can’t fault the woodwinds, who played like pros, as the composer calls on them to do. How he loved woodwinds, and he stands as one of the best friends they’ve ever had, with Tchaikovsky et al.
Many years ago, I heard a Dialogues at the Met and then went to hear another one a few weeks later—for the purpose of writing about some new cast members. In the first performance, the conductor had been: fine. Or mediocre. In the second, he, and the performance, were sublime.
Music is like sports. Some days or nights are better than others.
Normally, a critic reviewing a Dialogues would start with the soprano singing Blanche. I will start with the mezzo singing Mother Marie: Jamie Barton, of Rome, Georgia. She was superb. She was a model of secure, strong, correct, and moving singing. She acted well too (a bonus in opera).
Outstanding, too, was our Blanche, Ailyn Pérez. This character ought to project beauty, fragility, goodness, loveliness. Ms. Pérez did so. She sang easily—with a naturalness that was almost disarming. Making her Met debut as Constance was another soprano, Sabine Devieilhe, from France. Most of us know her for her Mozart, and for the Baroque. She was an endearing Constance, pure and bright. (She delivered proper French, too.)
When I saw, in the program, that Alice Coote was going to be the First Prioress, I wondered, “Is it time yet?” Often, this role is taken by a mezzo toward the end of her career. It is a role in which to let everything—including the wear-and-tear of age—hang out. Ms. Coote presumably has many good singing years left.
But why leave it too late? This reliable Brit made a good First Prioress, or Madame de Croissy. She was more vigorous in death than some I have seen.
In the role of Madame Lidoine, the New Prioress, was Christine Goerke, star of Strauss, Wagner, and other operas. The great aria, “Mes filles, voilà que s’achève,” she can do better. She can do it in more French a fashion: cool-hot. And that final, killer phrase—“avec ma maternelle bénédiction”—can have a much greater effect.
The whole opera can have a much greater effect. It should leave you shattered, or punched in the gut.
Sitting there, and thinking about how the French Revolution proceeded, I thought of a favorite fact—favorite dark fact: Pol Pot and his (first) wife, Khieu Ponnary, studied in Paris. They married in 1956, on what was a holy day for them, perhaps their only holy day: Bastille Day.