Cher Public

Another nun bites the dust

“In the 19 seasons of ‘Bel Canto at Caramoor,’ the annual festival of concert performances at a sylvan country estate in Katonah, N.Y., the artistic mission has remained unchanged. It is rooted in Italian opera of the first half of the 19th century, in the vocally virtuosic bel canto style after which the event is named. And so the sudden and radical departure from that tradition this summer—a leap forward of more than a century to present the Francis Poulenc opera Dialogues des Carmélites—sounded ominous.” [New York Observer]

  • guy pacifica

    Best. Headline. Ever.

  • JohninSeattle

    “Poulenc punctuates a driving choral setting of the hymn “Salve regina” with the seemingly random “whoosh” of the falling blade of the guillotine.”

    If Poulenc weren’t so genuinely devout, it would come off as a great moment in Camp. Twelve Voices, WHOOSH! Eleven Voices, WHOOSH!

    But bless his heart, he’s a true believer and only us godless souls snicker. It’s a true “coup de teatre” or however it’s spelled. (My French is only bearable in comparison to HORRIBLE German.)

    • I find this comment very interesting because it seems like religion and the existence of a god is the great barrier that many can not cross when suspending belief.

      We have no issues with a plump woman dying of consumption, or a blond woman playing Japanese; but the moment the miracle scene in Angelica or the ending of Dialogue of the Carmelites start, we put our walls and blocks and can not get into it.

      Why is that? We are talking theater here; so I wonder why is it so hard for an unbeliever to suspend belief and think “Well, everyone knows there is no god, but in this world, created by the author/composer/librettist, there is one and the actions of the actors will correspond to the belief that there is a god.”

      I find this fascinating; and none of my atheist friends have been able to explain it to me.

      • Henry Holland

        I’ve been an atheist since I was 12 (1972), I’m of the “I think it’s ALL nonsense, but if it helps someone get through the pain, drudgery and loneliness that is rampant in this world we’ve made for ourselves, that doesn’t bother me at all, just don’t try to convert me” sort.

        The religious aspects of Suor Angelica or Parsifal or Dialogues of the Carmelites or Saint François d’Assise or Moses und Aron doesn’t bother me. I’m not an elderly German writer pursuing a Polish youth in Venice ca. 1911 either, but like those operas, I find the music and the libretto so well done that I get swept up in it.

        I learned long ago that if I applied a litmus test of what I think about things to works of art and especially to the people who create them and base my patronage on that pass/fail basis, I’d not experience very much art. As Captain Vere sings “There is always some flaw in it, some defect”……..

        • DeepSouthSenior

          Well, Henry, I’ve been a believing, orthodox (little “o”), evangelical Christian since before I was 12 (1960), and I find myself in agreement with you in the way we approach works of art. With regard to opera, I try to enter into the worldview of each work, and accept it (the work, not the worldview) on its own terms. To be sure, this can be difficult at times. This week I attended the Live in HD Encore screening of Aida from 2012 -- Monastyrska was much better than I remembered! -- and again had to suffer through the dreadful, raw paganism of priests and people. Yet Aida is true to the time and place of its setting, at least as Verdi understood it in his day. And the finale brought a smile to my face, as it always does: Verdi superimposes a clearly Christian vision of the rapture and bliss of heaven upon the dying lovers. No such sentiments were ever expressed with such confidence in ancient Egypt, as far as I know. No matter: The contrast between the joy of Ramades/Aida as they are dying with the utter despair of Amneris, who is cursed as she lives, is perfect as it stands.

      • JohninSeattle

        OT… to be sure… I love this opera.

        But when you say: “so I wonder why is it so hard for an unbeliever to suspend belief” you have answer in front of you. Kierkegaard said belief, by it’s very nature, was irrational. That a “leap of faith” was needed. So, yes, the “unbeliever” would need to suspend belief, which goes against their very nature.

        Happily we all get along in my family -- believers and unbelievers. Moms prays the rosary twice a day. Her faith is one of her best qualities. But it’s not my cup of tea and we all get along marvelously.

        • Jamie01

          It’s not necessary to suspend my disbelief to appreciate Dialogues. I don’t have to believe in God. I only have to believe that the sisters do.

          For me, the end of the opera isn’t all that harrowing. We’re all mortal after all, and approaching one’s death bravely and in a state of grace isn’t the worst thing imaginable.

          As a non-believer, I find the Prioress’s crisis of faith at the end of Act 1 much more devastating.

          • Henry Holland

            The first time I saw a production of Dialogues (San Diego in the early 90’s, I think) and the scene with the Prioress you mention played out, I thought of Brideshead Revisited and Lawrence Olivier as the dissolute Lord Marchmain allowing himself to be anointed just before he dies. Of course, in Lord Marchmain’s case, it felt to me that it was a desperate “Well, just in case, it can’t hurt to hedge my bets” bit of cynicism, the Prioress’ crisis is much more riveting to me.

      • luvtennis

        I would have a hard time suspending my disbelief too. How can you kill nuns to music that’s this much FUN!

  • WindyCityOperaman

    What happened to the composer’s desire that this opera be performed in the language of whatever house it’s being performed in? SF, NYCO and first performances at the Met all followed this.

    • I think, as we have become more international, singers have less time to learn standard operas in translation so it saves time and effort to do them in the original language and use titles.

      In the case of the English translation, at least when we did it at IU nearly 20 years ago, the english version of the score was OOP.

      • Gualtier M

        The Joseph Machlis English translation is the standard and the only one that is licensed for performance and it should be available for rental. One interesting new aspect to the Caramoor performance was the new English surtitle translations by Ellen Keel which closely followed the Bernanos/Poulenc text.

        Also, Will Crutchfield stated in the lecture that Poulence deliberately timed the guillotine swooshes at erratic intervals that didn’t follow the music. To have them each get decapitated after 10 bars or right on the downbeat would have resulted in cartoonish camp. This way, you don’t know when the blow will strike but it does require that the nuns memorize the cues carefully and stage their exit precisely so they are offstage for a certain number of seconds before the swoosh. Takes a lot of rehearsal.

        BTW: I love “Carmelites” in French and I love it in English too. The Met has done it the last two times in French with a mostly Anglophone cast that could have easily done it superbly in English (Pat Racette has great English diction and sang well as both Blanche and Lidoine). I would love to hear it in English again.

        • Thank you for the info. I remember the vocal score being impossible to find, to the point that I think permission was given for it to be photocopied. I am sure it is a lot easier to find now, but then again, with the move to perform it in french here in the US, maybe not.

  • phillyoperalover

    I think that companies should follow the composers wish. It makes sense. I understand the time and effort situation, but I think that it is more effective in the native language of the country it is performed in. Now when my school did it, we did it in French.

    • I agree with you, but can you tell an international level singer (let’s say Christine Opolais) that although she knows the role of Blanche in French and is well coached in the language, she needs to learn it in English, in between her engagements?

      First, there is no way of securing it will be a standard translation, given how using that would be an extra expense on securing the rights. This means that if she is engaged to do the role again, in English, she might be faced with the task of learning a different translation.

      Then there’s the added pressure of having to devote extra time to learnings and coachings while you are between engagements and would rather be home resting. (and it is not as of she will be compensated extra for the added expense)

      Honestly, I get it, but I am not sure it is realistic in this world of jets and fast travels. It might work in smaller houses, or in student productions but I’ll be the first one to say, if I had reached a certain level, I’ll sing the Chevalier in French or get someone else cause I do not have time to learn 3 different translations and not get paid for the extra time and coachings in the language. It might be short sighted, but it is the reality of the business.

    • Arianna a Nasso

      One has to wonder if Poulenc would have revised his request about using the local language in performance had he known surtitles would exist. These deal to a large degree with the comprehension issue at which one assumes he was aiming by making his request.

  • when Sister Blanche finally sings her final lines of the hymn

    This might seem minor, but the text that Blanche sings as she walks to the scaffold is not the end of the Salve Regina. If Blanche had sung the ending portion of the Salve Regina the text would have been this:

    Ora pro nobis, sancta Dei Genitrix.
    Ut digni efficamur promissionibus Christi.

    Instead she sings the closing of the Veni, Creator Spiritus:

    Deo Patri sit gloria,
    et Filio qui a mortuis
    Surrexit, ac Paraclito,
    in saeculorum saecula.

    My guess is that this happened because the ending on the Salve Regina is way too wordy and probably a bitch to set, though not impossible. The ending of the Veni Creator rings and sings a lot better. At the time of the premiere, I am sure people would have been a LOT more familiar with the Latin texts of these prayers and would have been able to pick up on it. Maybe they could have also seen in this a sign of Blanche’s own religious immaturity (“Look, she can not keep her prayers straight. She switched, but look how brave she is.) and with this an added level of involvement with the action. that been said, all this is conjecture in my part and for good or bad, that connection to these Latin texts has been lost in the post Vatican II world.

    • armerjacquino

      Isn’t it more that she’s moving from a non-specific ‘please pray for us’ prayer to a vision of resurrection and eternal life? After all, she’s been terrified of death the whole opera. I’d say her switch is about character not word setting.

      • Could be. I had not thought of that. It could be both.

        Poulenc: “How in hell am I going to be able to set these words? I mean, have you seen this text? how is this character going to sing all these syllables and not look ridiculous or take another 5 minutes to die? People will think this is Manon all over again!”

        Duval: “Honey, chill. how about the last words from the Veni Creator? they sing well, and that will give Blanche a last moment of personal growth?

        Poulenc: “God, if I was a lesbian I would marry you right now. you are a genius!”

      • Hard to say. Apparently in the real-life incident, the sisters all sang the “Veni, creator.” Of course in real life there was no Blanche de la Force.

        I wonder if maybe the different rhythms of the two texts might have been a factor in Poulenc’s decision: the “Salve regina” might in his imagination have better suited the driving “march”: rhythm, and the less emphatic stresses of the other text might have indicated Blanche’s free and and unfrightened choice to join her sisters.

        I would also suggest that the line “in saeculorum saecula” lends itself to an echoey sort of repetition, which is effective in the sense that the guillotine blow for Blanche could plausibly happen at any moment once she has sung the text through once. Everything after that is just waiting for the inevitable. (My own emotional response is that the earlier blows are all to one degree or another shocking, but the final one evokes a sense of what one might call consummation.

        • Krunoslav

          A pity the good sisters in Compiegne had no access to the Jeremy Sams version of “We’re the Ladies of the Chorus” for their mass exit. That would have wowed the jacobin crowds.

          • armerjacquino

            Sams has dropped a few clangers at the Met but on this occasion I think we should bear in mind that ‘Ja so sind wir die grisetten/ Von Parisier kabaretten’ is hardly the most deathlessly brilliant poetry to be translating in the first place.

            • Krunoslav

              Oh, no disputing that the Carmelites would have needed the services of Sister Susan of the Wriggling and Giggling of Christ to make their full impact.

  • parpignol

    how precise is Poulenc when specify in the score the sound of the guillotine for the final scene?
    I thought at Caramoor it was louder and more intensely metallic than I remembered from other productions; and I think I can remember hearing an updated production (think persecution of nuns in a 20th-century totalitarian regime) where the sound of a firearm was used instead of the whoosh-thud of the guillotine. . .

  • tancredipasero

    The guillotine strokes fall on specific beats in the score (but not predictable ones -- not always on the downbeat(.

    The question about language is pretty important and the answer about busy singers on the international circuit is almost certainly correct — but sad. When Poulenc made those intentions known, he wasn’t asking for “special” treatment for his show -- opera was regularly and consistently performed in the audience language in France, Italy, Germany, Russia, and all the Scandinavian and Eastern European countries -- by singers who spoke those languages, to audiences who understood them -- in standard rep and new music alike. The idea of “you can’t understand their delivery anyway” is a post-operanto trope -- there are dozens of old broadcasts on which you can hear an opera in a translation you’ve never heard before and understand it perfectly.

    Does anyone know the source of Poulenc’s widely reported expression of preference? I don’t, but I suspect it had to do with the American premiere in San Francisco, where they might have chosen to do it in “foreign” since that was traditional in America. Almost everywhere else, opera was still a form of theater and he wouldn’t have even had to make the request.

    • mjmacmtenor

      Here is the La Scala performance -- in Italian as Poulenc requested. Besides Virginia Zeani as Blanche, there is Leyla Gencer as Mme. Lindoine and Fiorenzo Cossotto a Mere Maire (guess that counts as an “Amneris type”voice).

      • oscar

        Cossotto sang the smaller role of Sister Mathilde in the premiere. Gigliola Frazzoni sang the Mother Marie. She was a dramatic soprano, not a mezzo.

        • armerjacquino

          Frazzoni was THE Minnie for a while, wasn’t she?

          • WindyCityOperaman

            • Quanto Painy Fakor

          • Krunoslav

            Not whilst C. A. ‘Betty’ Fretwell trod the boards!

            Here’s an Armer style question. who else besides Frazzoni has sung Mere Marie and Minnie?

            The answer is…. drum roll connoting the expected result;

            Anja Silja

            Not that many sopranos have done Marie-- neither Amara nor Goltz nor-- surprisingly--Tinsley or Barstow tackled Minnie, at least to my knowledge.

            Some Minnies I ‘d like to have seen as Mere Marie: Mara Zampieri, Maralin Niska, Eiisabeth Matos. Neblett and Steber seem like Lidoines; Kirsten sang Blanche…

            …and of course Maria Jeritza in a final comeback circa 1957..

            • Buster

              Karan Armstrong was good in both parts, apparently: Her Minnie was even described as “magisterial” because she acted it so well too.


              She sang Minnie in 1981, in a David Pountney production.

            • DeepSouthSenior

              Permit me to cast a vote for Deborah Voigt as Minnie from Met Live in HD, January 2011. (I’m braced for the incoming slings and arrows.) She seemed to be in her best voice in years, she looked great in “authentic” (ha!) Western getup, and was clearly enjoying the part. Marcello Giordani was a little bland in voice and manner, certainly not the cow-dude to die for, but acceptable if not memorable. And you gotta love the snowflakes falling inside the cabin!

            • Quanto Painy Fakor

              Marilyn Zschau was indimenticabile as Minnie in the Corsaro staging at NYCO

            • PCally

              Westbroek is my all time favorite Minnnie. Those who haven’t should check out the dvd, it’s all around superb. She made her debut as Mere Marie (don’t know where) and subsequently sang a very successful Madame Lidione is paris about a decade ago.

            • Lohengrin

              Fanciulla from Vienna 2013 will be released on DVD in October (Stemme, Kaufmann).

      • Quanto Painy Fakor

  • Patrick Mack

    CLASSIC Headline. Brava, La Cieca!