Poulenc’s wondrously godly Dialogues des Carmélites returned to the Met on Saturday, after a painful 10-year absence, at the ungodly hour of 11.30am. There was, it turned out, troublesome method in this temporal madness. Time was needed to set up the zillion-dollar machinery for Robert Lepage’s misbegotten Rheingold production, scheduled to follow at 8pm.
The Carmélites staging, created by John Dexter and designed by David Reppa in 1977, remains a model of poetic imagery, narrative point and expressive pathos. The set, evocatively lit by Gil Wechsler, consists of a gently raked cruciform and a few fragmentary drops. Many of the costumes, it is said, were recycled from warehouse stock. Compared to what Lepage lavished on his clunky Wagnerian pipedream, Dexter and his colleagues spent virtually nothing. But they came up with an iconic masterpiece.
The current revival, overseen by David Kneuss, is worthy, on every level, of the composer’s vision and the director’s inspiration. When the curtain – yes, an old-fashioned opera-house curtain – finally descended, after the Compiègne nuns followed each other, one by one, to the guillotine while chanting the Salve Regina, the audience responded initially with stunned silence. No other reaction seemed possible, no other tribute appropriate.
The Met has always focused Poulenc’s musings on martyrdom and the crisis of faith in revolutionary France with tragic intensity. This performance, the first of only three as the season nears its end, upheld the noble tradition.
Louis Langrée reinforced both introspection and propulsion in the pit. An impeccably balanced, sensitively nuanced ensemble of singing actors included Isabel Leonard as the troubled Blanche de la Force, Erin Morley as the innocent Constance, Patricia Racette as the frustrated Mme Lidoine, Elizabeth Bishop as the sympathetic Mère Marie and, most shattering, Felicity Palmer as the dying Prioress.
Although Poulenc wanted his philosophical dialogues delivered in the language of the audience, he did not anticipate projected translations. The Met has now reverted to the original French, and it was articulated with dramatic clarity.
If only opera were always like this.