Dialogues of the Carmelites

Austin Lyric Opera meets the challenge of Poulenc's work with economy and emotive power

Arts Review

Dialogues of the Carmelites

Dell Hall at the Long Center, through April 26

Running time: 3 hr

It was a fitting prelude to an opera about the intrusion of the outside world on a sanctuary of nuns. The walkway to the Long Center cast a gaze across thousands of heads bobbing in rhythm to the Austin Reggae Festival just down the lawn, the sound reverberating off the face of the center. It's a good thing Dell Hall was built with such fine acoustic protections, as the scene about to unfold within it, the opening night of Austin Lyric Opera's passionate and heady Dialogues of the Carmelites, was of a completely different spirit.

Now, Francis Poulenc's 1957 opus isn't for everyone. At more than three hours in length and set primarily in a convent amidst the psychological ruminations of its nuns, this is a demanding work. Bravo to the leaders of Austin Lyric Opera for showing that they, and their audience, were very much up to the challenge.

What is striking about the production from the start is the economy of its design and direction. From Harry Frehner and Scott Reid's spare but evocative scenic design to Shawn Kaufman's ethereal lighting, the production embraces the timely spirit of less is more, leaving much room for the rich interaction of its characters. Credit Eric Einhorn, a rising star in the opera world, for leading the artists with unique and creative stage direction.

Poulenc's highly emotive score is gorgeous and eccentric, especially considering the action taking place onstage. The music could just as easily be accompanying a high romance or epic battle, suggesting the composer's struggle with his own faith played a vital role in the work. Armed with an orchestra of Austin's finest, conductor Richard Buckley leads his ensemble through the jaunty sweeps of Poulenc's score with great assurance. Throughout the first act on opening night, however, the orchestra at times overpowered the vocal work onstage, an imbalance that eventually corrected itself as the night wore on.

The story for Dialogues in short goes like this: Blanche, an innocent and oversensitive daughter of nobility, leaves pre-Revolution French society to seek sanctuary in a Carmelite convent. As the Revolution's reign of terror threatens to destroy the order itself, Blanche flees the convent and the remaining nuns take the vow of martyrdom. And then there's the ending, which I'll save for last.

As Blanche, Emily Pulley is striking, nailing her character's emotional roller coaster and anchoring the piece with her luminous presence. Sheila Nadler captivates as the old prioress, Madame de Croissy, who in her agonizing last moments of life rejects the God to whom she's devoted her life. In the role of Sister Constance, an upbeat peer nun to Blanche, Suzanne Ramo's soaring high soprano offers moments of exquisite levity within the otherwise serious work.

The first act focuses on the detailed character development of Blanche and the nuns, a process which blossoms so slowly that you could sense restlessness in the audience. As the final scene arrived, however, and the legions of revolutionaries gathered to accompany the nuns, forced from their habits and hair shorn, to the guillotine, the experience of the action in juxtaposition was cathartic. I'll leave out final details for those yet to see the performance. Though surely everyone in the audience knew the moment was coming, the sense of shock and sorrow that followed was visceral. A tremendous experience I won't forget for a long time.

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Dialogues of the Carmelites, Austin Lyric Opera, Richard Buckley, Eric Einhorn, Emily Pulley, Suzanne Ramo, Sheila Nadler

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