Opera Dialogues of the Carmelites Hits High Notes
A daughter who informs her father of her desire to marry a young chap with whom she has had a sultry fling will probably find herself facing a tirade of screaming matches. Strangely enough, a daughter who informs her father of her wish to enter a convent will also suffer the same reaction, for “a virtuous girl should not trust decisions made in a state of passionate devotion.”
But that only happens in 18th century France, and anyway, only a Marquis could put those words together.
Oberlin Opera Theater’s fall production, Dialogues of the Carmelites, by Francis Poulenc, primarily follows Blanche de la Force, a young woman turned ascetic nun, and her sisters through a frightening sociopolitical headlock. Set during the French Revolution, the story concerns itself with the events leading up to the death of 16 Carmelite nuns by guillotine merely ten days prior to the conclusion of the Reign of Terror. Performances will differ from night to night, however, as the show has been double-cast; one set is slated to perform Wednesday and Saturday and the other will play Friday and Sunday.
The show’s opening is convoluted and confusing, from Megan Hart’s overacting in the part of the impressionable Blanche, the wannabe nun, to the suppressed dismay of her father, the Marquis de la Force, played Friday and Sunday by Aaron Agulay. Hart’s excessively dramatized performance (with some classically cheesy moves, such as clasping her hands together and gazing upward) is almost cancelled out by her soaring voice, uplifting enough to pull an anvil up against the force of gravity.
The Marquis’s diluted reaction comes because, as Agulay said, “He’s a noble man, and doesn’t want to seem frail in front of his children. He always puts up fronts...and always covers things up with smiles, laughter or excuses.”
Agulay embodies the aloof and glibly pompous manner of the character he describes quite well.
Blanche exists under the head of the convent, Prioress Madame de Croissy, a role that Ilene Pabon (Friday/Sunday) brings gorgeously to light; it truly is a shame that her character dies so early in the story, for her voice should be given more time to shine. Pabon’s death scene is absolutely as convincing as it is heart-wrenching.
“You have to go to a very dark place,” she said. “It is a really sad, sad, dramatic opera... It really takes a chunk out of you.”
After Croissy’s death, Madame Lidoine, played by Jennifer Forni (Friday/Sunday), is elected as Prioress. In this position, Forni excels in terms of building rapport among the forlorn sisters. All the typical Good Samaritan values appear as Lidoine becomes the glue holding together the last threads as the revolutionaries increasingly intimidate the convent.
Lidoine is also played by Jessica Marcrum (Wednesday/Saturday), who found the part a difficult one to connect with.
“It forced me...to get more in touch with a character that is not myself at all... I’m always [cast as] a whore or a boy,” said Marcrum.
Alice Teyssier (Friday/Sunday) gives a less than stellar performance as Sister Constance (also played by Ami Vice) Her voice is much too shrill, much too piercing and altogether too uncomfortable for the ear to handle. Despite this almost immediate disappointment, she redeems herself near the end in an agonizing outburst to reveal her opposition to taking the vow of martyrdom.
The opera’s paramount highlight is Sheena Ramirez (Wednesday/Saturday), who plays Blanche; her performance on Wed. surpassed all expectations. Successful realistic portrayal came from Ramirez’s intense study of the role.
“[I was] fleshing out [Blanche’s] wants and desires, making her someone that I could know in real life,” she said. “The more you can relate to the person you’re playing, the more organic it becomes.”
Blanche is yet another character who dies, but Ramirez seems to view her passing differently than the audience might.
“The strange thing is, when you look at the end of the opera as an audience member, it does really seem unsettling, but when you get in the minds of the nuns, the end is so beautiful, so spiritual,” she said. “We can all go and be with our father in heaven.”
Dialogues is director Sally Stunkel’s first production at Oberlin. With a strong background and years of experience, she has brought a new perspective to campus.
“She has demanded so much of us,” said Kira McGirr, referring to the combination of historical research, vocal stamina and emotional acting that Stunkel has emphasized. McGirr, who shares the role of Sister Mathilde with Jennifer Jakob, describes the character as “the sarcastic, older nun.”
Although Stunkel insisted on only the highest of standards, her goals were all clearly within reach.
“Considering this is mostly an undergraduate school, I’ve been very impressed...with the talents and the strength of the voice program,” she said.
While this opera was selected before Stunkel arrived in town, she was certainly pleased with the choice.
“Oh, I love it. I think it’s great for universities because it has so many women’s parts. There are always far too many women in the voice department, and not enough men,” she said.
Musically speaking, Poulenc’s score is powerful and compelling. With a text already so tormenting, the orchestra heightens the tension as a part of the story.
“I think that what’s striking about this piece is that the music and the words — that is, the poetry, the drama of it — are so intertwined...that one can’t exist without the other. The music really comes out of the words, out of the rhythm of the language, out of the rhythm of the French and out of the dramatic direction of the piece,” said conductor Ari Pelto, OC ’92.
Under Pelto’s direction, the orchestra essentially has two different interpretations to understand, as a result of the double casting. But one thing always to keep in mind — follow all cues, especially the cut offs.
Compliments need to be given to costume designer Chris Flaharty and set designer Dame Mroczek, for reflecting the bleak atmosphere with a despairing minimalist approach to aesthetic appearance.
Audiences will be stunned by a remarkable performance of a harrowing story about discontented French revolutionaries who confused the part of the oppressive monarchy with the Church.
“You don’t have to be spiritual to be touched by the amazing sense of love and charity that is radiated in the opera,” said Ramirez.
Dialogues of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc will be performed again
in Hall Auditorium at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday.