Francis Poulenc’s only sacred opera, which opened at Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theater on Saturday night for a four-night run, provided moving stage direction and the haunting characterizations from the first of two New England Conservatory’s Opera Department casts. This performance ranks with those of the best national preparatory companies (like San Francisco’s Merola program). Stage director Steven Goldstein’s spectacularly professional production complimented austere scenic design with striking use of contrasting dark and scrim curtains, focusing the drama on the slightly raked stage and Poulenc’s music.
Standout voices included Stephanie Scogna’s delightful and effervescent Sister Constance, the two standout baritones: Josh Quinn, who dominated the opening scenes with his rich, resonant portrayal of the Marquis de la Force, and Junhuan Choi, whose ringing tone and excellent diction brought to life five supporting roles. While this opera allows the female voices to dominate the drama (both in the 16-voice SSAA choral music, and in the two dozen leading roles), the three women who lead the Carmelites offered the best integration of acting and stage presence: Chelsea Bolter’s Mother Marie led by example, sustaining a rich, clear tone in all ranges, and providing a moral center for her scenes. Kara Morgan’s first act death scene (Poulenc’s only attempt at a Romantic mad scene, using the character of the Old Prioress to foreshadow the fate of the nuns) brought down the house in the first act. Cheyanne Coss (as the New Prioress) delivered a poignant and powerful soliloquy in the third act. Poulenc never quite allows himself to break into a full aria (his music hall days were long gone by the late 1930s), but his combination of accompanied recitative/arioso, supported by a fine woodwind choir, evokes his best sacred music (think of the Gloria, with its flash and holy fire).
Dialogues of the Carmelites is a chillingly contemporary story set in the same historical period as the popular musical Les Mis. The cast performed Joseph Machlis’s English translation, and supertitles were projected on a balcony video screen placed above and to the left of the stage. Conductor Stephen Lord led the NEC Orchestra in Poulenc’s subtle irregular meters, bringing out the characteristic rhythmic flexibility while supporting the voices. Nicole Caligiuri’s gorgeous English horn solo in Act 1 and the melifluous clarinet work of Luke Park, Somin Lee, and Diana Searle in Act II balanced the voices and added depth and solemnity to the tone of the production.
Poulenc was raised Roman Catholic and trained as an organist, but mentioned to friends (such as Georges Auric) that he had experienced crises of faith and that the growing public acceptance of sacred spectacle seemed to mirror the ascendancy of France’s political right. Stravinsky’s early ballets exerted a powerful influence on Poulenc, who employed polytonality, fluidly changing keys, and contrapuntal constructions with atonal and diatonic elements, but his newly composed Gregorian-style melodies never shock in this opera.
Francis Poulenc’s closest friend was the affable and gregarious Pierre-Octave Ferroud (1900-1936); together they co-founded and directed the Triton contemporary chamber music group from 1932-1936. Among the younger generation of French composers, Ferroud had begun to be acclaimed for his colorful and dense orchestrations, with compositions admired and advocated by both Prokofiev and Ravel.
In August 1936, while Francis Poulenc was vacationing in southwestern France, he learned that Ferroud had been beheaded in a car crash while walking along a road in Debrecen, Hungary. Immediately after hearing the news, Poulenc went to the ancient monastery Notre Dame de Rocamadour, in the Lot River Valley, with its revered “black” statue of the Virgin, a common pilgrimage destination. That night he began his first religious work, the Litanies of the Black Virgin, based on pilgrims’ prayers.
At the same time, Poulenc began to examine his own religious beliefs: through a number of sacred works written over the next 25 years, he developed a unique religious musical style, both confirming and questioning the significance of faith. The violence of Ferroud’s death haunted Poulenc for years, prompting a new seriousness and depth of expression in his music—and eventually finding its grotesque echo in the celebrated guillotine finale of opera Dialogues.
And speaking of that spectacular final scene at the risk of spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it yet, when each guillotine stroke sounded during the last choral piece, each one of the main 16 women would suddenly turn around, throwing her hands out into a “cross” then slowly lie face down, creating a stage full of “headless” bodies, as they were facing away from the audience, so you could see the full body, without seeing the head. A coup de théâtre!