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‘Dialogues of the Carmelites’ will test skills
Opera, that most dramatic of staged performance arts, seems to have a preoccupation with death. It probably has something to do with the notion of the lovely leading lady delivering the most poignant aria of the night, her voice like a candle burning brightest at its end.
‘DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES’
Hawaii Opera Theatre
Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall
When: 8 p.m. today, 4 p.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. Tuesday
Info: hawaiiopera.org or 596-7858
But few operas register death as powerfully as Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” which multiplies that drama sixteenfold. The rarely performed opera gets its Hawaii debut tonight in the first of three performances by Hawaii Opera Theatre.
Such is the impact of the story that no one worries about revealing the end. The opera is based on a momentous historical event — when a group of nuns, facing persecution from zealous revolutionaries in the bloody aftermath of the French Revolution, give their most profound and most courageous testament of faith.
“You’ve got 16 Carmelite nuns who choose to martyr themselves,” said HOT Executive Director Karen Tiller, who is directing the play in a “final act” of her own (more on that later). “But it happened truly in history. … They go to the scaffold, to the guillotine, singing. That actually happened. They stood at the base of the scaffold, renewed their vows and they each went, one by one, to their deaths, until their voices were snuffed out.
“This is their story: the process through the Reign of Terror that leads them to make that choice.”
The story is largely played out in the person of Blanche de la Force, the timid daughter of an aristocrat who at first joins a monastery out of general paranoia (“In this day and age, somebody would just medicate her,” Tiller said) and through the course of the opera struggles with the obligations of her decision.
Amanda Hall, a rising star who is making her HOT debut after a highly praised portrayal of “Lucia di Lammermoor” on the East Coast, was eager to portray Blanche for the first time.
“It was on my ‘bucket list,’” she said, calling Blanche one of the most compelling roles in the opera repertoire. “The character really appealed to me. She’s so beautiful in her fear because it’s such an empathy that she’s feeling. … She doesn’t have the emotional grounding to deal with (the world) in a normal way, to process it and let it go.”
Hall said the role is so intense that it has been challenging to focus on singing. “A big part of what I’ve been doing is keeping my grounding through this process so that I can keep a free instrument,” she said.
Tiller praised Hall’s performance in rehearsal. “She is bringing such an incredible, dramatic color to the role,” Tiller said. “She’s got an incredible voice. It’s a very difficult role to sing, and it’s an incredible role to act.”
THE ANTITHESIS to the fearful Blanche and many of her fellow nuns is Madame Lidoine, the prioress of the monastery.
Diane Alexander, who last sang for HOT as “The Merry Widow” in 2004, said the character is one who shows optimism in the face of impending disaster.
“I’m one who sees the glass full rather than glass empty,” Alexander said.
Still, Madame Lidoine faces dissension among the nuns and ultimately faces the task of affirming and accepting the responsibility of martyrdom.
Madame Lidoine leads the nuns to the guillotine, “so that they can ascend to the heavens without the burden of this on their conscience,” Alexander said.
Her big moment comes during a lovely aria for Madame Lidoine in the third act, a rare instance in “Dialogues” where a solo singer is allowed to shine.
Though Alexander is happy to have that spotlight, she said the quality of the opera overall makes Poulenc “the star of the opera.”
“As an actress, all I have to do is listen to the music,” she said, “because he has so cleverly written all of the dramatic beats in the music.”
First performed in 1956, “Dialogues” is in many ways an expression of Poulenc’s own personal crisis.
Born in 1899, he became known early in his career for composing lighthearted piano works. The death of a close friend in 1935 resulted in a turn inward and a renewal of interest in the Catholic beliefs of his childhood, but even there he faced conflicts.
“He was struggling with his place in this world,” Tiller said. “He was gay at a time when it was hard to be that, and he was the son of a very wealthy industrialist but raised Catholic. So (he had) a lot of angst, which he does very well in this opera.”
Poulenc struggled mightily with the work, agonizing over whether his music accurately conveyed the weight of the moment.
Some of his letters from that period suggested how strongly he identified with the sisters’ crisis. “Blanche was me, and still is me,” he wrote at one point.
Ultimately, “Dialogues” is considered his masterpiece.
Poulenc also insisted that the opera be accessible, requiring that it be performed in the language of the audience.
HOT WILL perform the opera in English, allowing listeners to follow its conversational tone.
“It’s not your typical opera,” Tiller said. “It’s not written as ‘here’s an aria, we’ll sing about something.’
“It’s completely through-composed, so it’s in real time. We don’t go back and repeat; we don’t comment on things.
“It’s people talking, which is why it’s called ‘Dialogues of the Carmelites.’”
In staging and rehearsing the opera, Tiller decided to stage scenes in sequence, rather than developing them independently and then putting them together.
That meant the performers all experienced the dramatic story line before the final death march was even staged.
“I didn’t want to do it too soon,” Tiller said of the solemn, bloodcurdling scene, which is punctuated by the ominous shhhh-thump of the guillotine’s blade.
“We’ve had the luxury … of traveling in order through the show, and it really helps build the connections between the characters and the emotional context that we’re working in.”
Tiller is stepping down from her position as HOT executive director to care for her growing family. She will continue to be involved with the company and will direct “Turandot” in the fall, and said she leaves the post with nothing but positive feelings for her experience.
Tiller came to Hawaii in 2002 to direct “Susannah” and got hired as executive director even before it was staged.
“The opera family became my family,” she said, praising colleagues and the community for helping the company thrive during some lean times. “I’m sure that even after I’m not working in the position I’m in, I will continue to feel that way.”
For Tiller it is particularly momentous that “Dialogues” will be her last as HOT executive director.
“For me it’s utterly relevant. We’ve talked lately in the news a lot about religious freedom, what is the government’s role in our lives,” she said.
“Truly, I am more excited by this production, this work, than anything I’ve ever done here.”