Review: ‘Dialogues’ a compelling production
REVIEW BY RUTH BINGHAM / Special to the Star-Advertiser
Hawaii Opera Theatre and Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” are almost the same age — “Dialogues” premiered in 1957, HOT in 1961.
In the half-century since, HOT has performed “Dialogues” only this once, making it Hawaii’s premiere. That alone is reason enough to go hear it, but more compelling are the work itself and HOT’s production.
‘Dialogues of the Carmelites
Presented by Hawaii Opera Theatre
» Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall, 777 Ward Ave.
“Dialogues” follows young, innocent Blanche from living fearfully, to finding courage in faith, to giving her life for her beliefs. Blanche may be the lead character, but the real focus of the story is its historical context, the beheading of sixteen Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution.
The libretto by Bernanos wraps the story in layered meanings: Blanche (“white” in French) symbolizes purity and humanity; the approaching storm is the French Revolution; the fearful “little rabbit” finds the world “a foreign place I cannot live”; each night seems like the Agony of Christ, which becomes Blanche’s chosen name in the convent, which was the same name chosen by her Mother Superior, who died in agony to spare Blanche, her favorite; and so on. The libretto is worth close study.
Poulenc’s setting is a true ensemble work: Blanche doesn’t even have her own aria — where is her epiphany? Her death scene?
This is a work of faith: the great moments are not about individuals (life is not about us, dear Listener) but about religion, conveyed through oratory and hymns.
Director Karen Tiller and Head of Music Beebe Freitas have assembled a uniformly strong ensemble, cast to match their characters. They sang with large, clear voices that delivered the text beautifully, and had distinctive vocal timbres that conveyed their individuality. Of particular note were the five female leads: Victoria Livengood (Madame de Croissy), Kristin Stone (Sister Constance), Diane Alexander (Madame Lidoine), Amanda Hall (Blanche), and Katherine Ciesinski (Mother Marie).
Poulenc perfectly melded vocal and instrumental lines to create a “soundscape” that listeners experience as an integrated whole. To ensure audiences understood the text, he famously mandated that “Dialogues” be sung in the vernacular of wherever it is performed, and HOT presents it in English, with supertitles.
Given that Poulenc created a minutely sensitive setting, the music illuminating the text moment-by-moment, almost word-for-word, and given the awkward scansion that results from fitting English into quintessentially French lines, one has to wonder what Poulenc might have chosen, had there been such a thing as supertitles in the 1950s.
Working with a large orchestra, Conductor Christopher Larkin elicited an expressively nuanced reading that brought the text to life without ever overpowering the singers, and the HOT Chorus, prepared by Chorus Director Nola Nahulu, delivered some of the most beautiful passages of the evening.
Throughout, “Dialogues” is a work of surprises: Despite having been composed mid-20th century, the music is beautiful, accessible, and expressive; despite lyrical moments, “Dialogues” is fundamentally accompanied recitative; despite being almost three and a half hours in length, it has a very tight libretto. Despite the somber tone, it is moving.
“Dialogues” lends itself to minimalist staging, and Designer Peter Dean Beck, Costumer Helen E. Rodgers, and Wig/Make-up Designer Sue Sittko Schaefer have created a lovely setting: muted colors; scaffolding with screens painted to hint at arches, columns, and walls; panels colored by lights.
Simple, elegant, and yet oddly superfluous — there because the genre demands.
“Dialogues” is a deeply religious, philosophical work, which puts it outside the realm of our feel-good popular culture. Designed for internal reflection rather than standing ovations, it is about overcoming fear and standing up for your principles, about the comfort and power of faith.
The closing “Salve Regina” chorus is gripping, as the nuns ascend the scaffold, one … by one … by one …. As their voices are silenced, their hymn grows louder, taken up by the townsfolk.
Poulenc’s work is aptly named: it is quite literally a series of “Dialogues,” presented in multiple scenes with occasional preludes, a structure that is less opera than oratorio, less oratorio than sung play.
That confusion of genre, combined with a subject matter that does not lend itself to wild applause, leaves audiences unsure whether and when to applaud (does one applaud beheadings?).
No matter — silence works as well as applause, and there is ample opportunity at the end to express appreciation.