by Francis Poulenc Dialogues of the Carmelites returned to the Houston Grand Opera Friday night after a 33-year absence.
The opening night performance at the Wortham Theater Center brought moving performances to Poulenc’s tragic drama of an order of nuns sentenced to the guillotine during the French Revolution. This production by Francesca Zambello premiered at Washington National Opera in 2015.
Based on a lived historical tragedy, Dialogs adds a fictional character in the center: Blanche de la Force, a young noblewoman so terrified of the upheavals of the world that she retires to a convent. But the violence of the revolution follows her there, and the opera focuses on Blanche’s struggle against fear, culminating in her joining her fellow nuns in the opera’s climactic procession as they march one by one towards the guillotine.
Natalya Romaniw brought a rich, throaty lyrical soprano to Blanche. Her vibrant singing easily conveyed the fervor that rose in Blanche at pivotal moments in the story, for example, when Blanche faces her brother, who comes to her convent to try to bring her home. At times like this, Romaniw gave Blanche’s statements an almost heroic resolve. And when the terror of potential martyrdom assailed Blanche, Romaniw’s voice took on a tone that captured that in a touching way.
What was missing was Blanche’s nervousness and fragility – the fear of life itself – that underlies the character. These are the qualities that make the young nun’s struggle so compelling and her ultimate self-sacrifice so powerful.
Although Romaniw’s vocals were red-blooded, she failed to convey an essential vulnerability. When Blanche chided her fellow novice, Sister Constance, for her good humor, Romaniw merely made her appear aggressive and mean-spirited, rather than communicating Blanche’s own fears.
With this aggrieved side of Blanche, Sister Constance emerged as the most likable character in the story on Friday. Lauren Snouffer’s silvery tones immediately showcased the young novice’s sunny nature, and when Constance recounted the fun she once had at her brother’s wedding, Snouffer’s little dance sparkle lent to the drama one of his rare moments of levity. While Poulenc’s high notes may not have the sparkle of Verdi’s or Puccini’s, Snouffer’s ease of flight transformed those moments into embodiments of Constance’s spirit and fervor.
Snouffer also sang the quieter moments with a lyricism and conviction that revealed the visionary, even mystical side of Constance, as when she (in French) declares: “We do not die for ourselves alone, but for each other. others – or sometimes even in place of everyone”. other.”
After portraying Tosca and Butterfly for HGO in years past, soprano Patricia Racette returned for her first appearance at local opera in over a decade to play Madame de Croissy. Zambello’s staging confined the ailing prioress to a wheelchair in her first scene and to a bed in her second. Even so, Racette still manages to hint at her dignity and determination, and project the agonies of the nun’s agony.
The role of the old nun, written for contralto, is low for Racette’s soprano; sometimes the singer was barely audible. But when the prioress’ cries rose into a more comfortable range, Racette launched them violently.
Before singing a note, the soprano Christine Goerke gave the new prioress, Madame Lidoine, an altogether more sympathetic attitude than her elderly predecessor: Greeting the nuns in turn, she smiled at them and touched them affectionately.
A vein of that comfort also ran through Goerke’s singing. But in the great moments of Madame Lidoine’s speeches to the nuns, Goerke’s voice arose with a weight that recalled her past HGO Brünnhildes, powerfully transmitting the prioress’s courage, faith and conviction. However, a few of those big statements lost some of their potency when Goerke didn’t quite hit the right spots.
Even among stage veterans such as Racette and Goerke, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano had her own impact as Mother Mary, the prioress’ assistant.
Cano’s voice was full and strong enough to project Marie’s courage when she confronted revolutionary soldiers and her determination when she urged nuns to take a vow of martyrdom. Yet when Blanche caved in fear, Cano sang with a warmth that revealed the tenderness behind the tenacity.
The men on the edges of the story helped put the women in the spotlight.
As Blanche’s father, the Marquis de la Force, Rod Gilfry initially sang with a booming tone that felt way over the top for the conversational intimacy of the opening scene; ; thankfully, he quickly reduced the volume, making the characterization more natural. Tenors Eric Taylor and Chad Shelton brought strong voices and dignified attitudes to the roles, respectively, of Blanche’s brother and chaplain.
The entire group of nuns united their voices with breadth and sweetness in their Ave Maria and Ave Verum Corpus, and stood alongside the weight of the HGO Orchestra in the climactic Salve Regina.
Conductor Patrick Summers urged the singers and orchestra to make the overture to this Salve Regina so powerful that they thwarted one of the opera’s most gripping moments, nearly drowning out the opening stroke of guillotine offstage. That misstep aside, Summers and the orchestra brilliantly captured the ever-changing sounds and moods of the score, from the silky allure of Poulenc’s fleeting bursts of lyricism to the ferocity that depicts revolutionaries and swagger. fearsome step that opens the final.
Zambello’s staging not only brought out the nature of the individual characters – from the dignity of Madame de Croissy and the warmth of Madame Lidoine to the charm of Sister Constance – but also made the nuns a cohesive group. Whether they cautiously voted for martyrdom or resignedly swapped their clothes for civilian clothes, they were entirely believable.
Hildegard Bechtler’s decorations, dominated by austere and almost bare walls, conveyed the ascetic existence of the nuns and focused attention on the main ones. But in the final scene, the walls left so little room for action that the nuns were clustered on one side and a small group of spear-wielding revolutionaries on the other. It barely created a powerful panoramic view.
Worse still, before the nuns began their procession to the guillotine, the center wall opened to reveal a chamber bathed in yellow light: After each nun ascended the stairs to the scaffold, she stopped there and faced the audience for a moment before leaving. when he died. Zambello’s stilted directorial gamble robbed the nuns’ final stages of the grim relentlessness that makes it so heartbreaking.
Dialogues of the Carmelites will be repeated at 2 p.m. on Sunday and at 7:30 p.m. on January 19 and 22 at the Wortham Theater Center. www.houstongrandopera.org; 713-228-6737.