Friday, May 10, 2013

Encountering Carmelites

I went last Saturday to see Dialogues des Carmelites at the Metropolitan Opera. It's an opera I had long known about, but never before seen. My old playwriting professor, Milan Stitt, first told me about the piece when I was in graduate school at Carnegie Mellon. He related how in the last scene, the nuns are all singing this beautiful song in luscious harmonies, but as one by one they are guillotined, their voices are silenced. The music becomes thinner and thinner, until at the end there is only one voice, and then even that voice disappears.

Milan's point was that this is a perfect example of using the form of a work of art to mirror its meaning. Even if the audience doesn't understand a single word of what is being sung, they understand both plot and theme through the structure of the music. We weren't writing operas in Milan's class, but he urged us to think creatively in terms of structure to see if we could convey what we wanted to say through the form of the play, not just through content. That's easier said than done, but Francis Poulenc's 1957 opera proves that it is possible. Even if you don't care for the rest of Dialogues des Carmelites, it's hard not to be moved by the closing scene.

I was surprised to learn that the Met was only presenting the opera for three performances this season. I went to get a standing-room-only ticket for Saturday's matinee. Standing-room tickets generally cost $25 for the orchestra level. (Well, $27.50 with the completely bogus "facilities" fee.) This time, though, I had to pay $37.50. I'm not sure if that was because it was a weekend or because it was the "grand opening" of the show's mammoth three-performance run. In either case, I grumbled about it, but it was worth it.

After the lights went down, I scurried to an empty seat on the aisle of row AA. I wasn't quite as lucky as the time I had a standing-room ticket to see Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas—and an usher gave me a seat front and center! (Some poor soul must have paid a fortune for it but then couldn't use it for some reason.) Still, I was much more comfortable than when I saw Nixon in China, and the house was so packed I had to stand for the entire performance. (How dare people actually use their opera tickets?)

I had read the libretto beforehand and heard the music, so I knew the story. Still, there were certain lines that struck me with tremendous force when they were sung (and I read them on the Met Titles on the seat in front of me).  In the opening scene, the chevalier tells his sister Blanche that when peasants surrounded her carriage she looked perfectly calm. Blanche responds, "So you think that I looked calm and courageous? Good Lord, perhaps danger is like plunging into the cold sea."

How prophetic those words are! Poulenc's Carmelites are anything but calm and courageous. They are filled with doubts, fears, hesitations, regrets, and all-too-human emotions not usually associated with religious martyrs. Like someone plunged in icy water, they seem cool and collected, but that doesn't mean they are unafraid. These women don't want to die, but they understand their deaths are necessary in the face of tyranny. In this case, the tyranny is the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, but having lived through the Nazi occupation of France, Poulenc must have had some more recent tyrannies in mind, too.

In this production, one of the nuns collapses on her way to the scaffold. The fear overwhelms her, and she simply cannot go any further. One of the other sisters comes forward and places her hand on the shoulder of the fallen nun. She kindly helps her up, and she takes the nun's hand to give her strength. With renewed courage, the fallen nun continues to the scaffold, followed behind by the sister who aided her. It was at this point I pretty much lost it and started sobbing.

All too often, opera productions (at least in the United States) suffer from a mentality of plant and sing. The music might be lovely, but the staging doesn't lend anything to the performance. I've even seen operas where the staging directly contradicted the sung text. That certainly was not the case here. The nuns were for the most part calm and still, as if shocked by their plunge into the cold sea that Blanche describes. However, the staging communicated what was going on underneath all of that. It helped the music to tell the story and enhanced both text and score.

One thing Milan left out when he described the opera to his class was that one of the sisters, in fact the protagonist, Blanche, is absent when the nuns are sacrificed on the scaffold. She returns just as her friend, the simple Constance, is about to be executed. This was handled beautifully in the Met's production. Even though I knew what was going to happen, I began to worry. Is Blanche going to arrive on time? Will Constance see her at the last moment, and know she's not alone?

The stage directions in the libretto are touching: "Constance catches sight of her friend and her face becomes radiant with happiness. She stops short for a brief moment, then resumes her journey to the scaffold, with a gentle smile to Blanche." The Met's production was not quite as subtle. Blanche ran on stage with her hand outstretched toward Constance, as if to say, "I'm here! I made it just in time! Now I can die, too!"

The intimacy of Blanche and Constance was like that of two lovers, though it didn't seem charged with homoeroticism. Similarly, Blanche's duet with her brother in Act II had echoes of a love song without feeling incestuous. Dialogues des Carmelites is a love story, but it is about a love that is far greater than any sexual passion. That is something we don't see much, in opera or in theatre, and I found it refreshing. Whether or not the audience shares the nuns' conception of God, they still must feel a sense of a true and unending love—a love that triumphs over even death.

During the final scene, by the way, the Met eliminates all of the Met Titles. The libretto at this point goes from French to a Latin prayer, so perhaps the idea was that this part of the opera wasn't meant to be in the vernacular anyway. I noticed afterward a note on the Met's Website says, "there will be periods during performances where titles are not appropriate and the screen will be dark." Whatever the rationale was in this case, it was an appropriate decision. As these women march off to their deaths, the audience doesn't need to be distracted by a prayer being translated into English.

If I wanted to, I suppose I could nit-pick about the opera. There are times when the soaring music does not quite match the frequently prosaic lines. One of the most dramatic moments in the music comes when the chevalier proclaims in a booming voice: "I wonder if the horses have been fed. I will go and question old Antoine." The Met Titles translated this slightly differently, but it still didn't make any sense for those simple lines to be highlighted by emotionally intense music.

The fact that I'm complaining about the music being too good is a sign that Dialogues des Carmelites is an amazing piece of art. As an opera, is it different from a piece of spoken drama? Of course, but this is an opera that gets the drama right. The singing draws out the duration of the piece, so it takes three hours to perform a libretto that could easily have been spoken in a fraction of the time. The music, however, adds to the intensity of the emotions, and when dramatically compelling events occur, the music heightens the effect.

Plus, the music is appropriate to the story. This is clearly twentieth-century music, but it did not pull me out of the world of the eighteenth century. The program quotes Poulenc as saying, "You must forgive my Carmelites—it appears they only can sing tonal music." The atonal music fashionable in the 1950s would have been entirely out of place in this opera, yet the score never sounds like a pastiche of music from the 1790s. Poulenc's music evokes the period while still sounding modern enough to contemporary audiences that we can relate to the story and not view it as existing hopelessly back in an inaccessible past.