Missteps apart, “Carmelites” makes powerful impact at Houston Grand Opera

Sun Jan 16, 2022 at 11:34 am
By Steven Brown
Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” opened Friday night at Houston Grand Opera. Photo: Lynn Lane

Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites returned to Houston Grand Opera Friday night after an absence of 33 years.  

The opening-night performance at Wortham Theater Center brought moving portrayals to Poulenc’s tragic drama of an order of nuns condemned to the guillotine during the French Revolution. This Francesca Zambello production was first premiered at Washington National Opera in 2015.

Based on a real-life historic tragedy, Dialogues adds a fictional character at the center: Blanche de la Force, a young noblewoman who is so terrified by the world’s upheavals that she retreats into a convent. But the revolution’s violence follows her there, and the opera focuses on Blanche’s struggle with fear—culminating in her joining her fellow nuns in the opera’s climactic procession as they walk one by one to the guillotine.

Natalya Romaniw brought a rich, full-throated lyric soprano to Blanche. Her vibrant singing easily conveyed the fervor that welled up within Blanche at pivotal points in the story—for instance, when Blanche faces down her brother, who comes to her convent trying to take her home. In moments like that, Romaniw gave Blanche’s declarations an almost heroic resolve. And when the terror of potential martyrdom beset Blanche, Romaniw’s voice took on an edge that captured that affectingly.

What was lacking was Blanche’s nervousness and frailty—the fear of life itself—that underlies the character. Those are the qualities that make the young nun’s  struggle so compelling and her ultimate self-sacrifice so powerful.

Red-blooded though Romaniw’s singing was, she failed to convey an essential vulnerability. When Blanche berated her fellow novice, Sister Constance, for being so cheerful, Romaniw merely made her comes across as aggressive and mean-spirited—rather than communicating Blanche’s own fears.

With that side of Blanche shortchanged, Sister Constance emerged Friday as the story’s most sympathetic character. Lauren Snouffer’s silvery tones put across the young novice’s sunny nature right away, and when Constance told about the fun she once had at her brother’s wedding, Snouffer’s little burst of dancing lent the drama one of its few moments of lightness. Though high notes in Poulenc may not have the showiness of those in Verdi or Puccini, Snouffer’s ease in soaring aloft turned those moments into embodiments of Constance’s spirit and fervor.

Snouffer also sang the quieter moments with a lyricism and conviction that revealed Constance’s visionary, even mystical side, such as when she (in French) declares: “We do not die for ourselves alone, but for each other—or sometimes even instead of each other.”

After portraying the likes of Tosca and Butterfly for HGO in years past, soprano Patricia Racette returned for her first local opera appearance in more than a decade to play Madame de Croissy. Zambello’s staging confined the ailing prioress to a wheelchair in her first scene and a bed in her second. Even so Racette still managed to hint at her dignity and resolve, and project the agonies of the nun’s death throes.

The role of the old nun, written for contralto, lies low for Racette’s soprano; at times the singer was barely audible. But when the prioress’s outcries rose into a more comfortable range, Racette hurled them out fiercely.

Before singing a note, soprano Christine Goerke gave the new prioress, Madame Lidoine, an entirely more congenial demeanor than her elderly predecessor: Greeting the nuns in turn, she smiled and touched each affectionately.

A vein of that coziness ran through Goerke’s singing, too. But in the big moments of Madame Lidoine’s addresses to the nuns, Goerke’s voice surged out with a heft that recalled  her past HGO Brünnhildes, powerfully conveying the prioress’s courage, faith and conviction. A few of those grand statements lost some of their potency, though, when Goerke didn’t quite make it up to the right pitches.

Even amid such stage veterans as Racette and Goerke, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano made an impact of her own as Mother Marie, the prioress’s assistant.

Cano’s voice was full and sturdy enough to project Marie’s courage when she confronted revolutionary soldiers and her resolve when she urged the nuns to take a vow of martyrdom. Yet when Blanche buckled with fear, Cano sang with a warmth that revealed the tenderness behind the toughness.

The men on the edges of the story helped set the women in relief.

As Blanche’s father, the Marquis de la Force, Rod Gilfry at first sang with a booming tone that felt way over the top for the first scene’s conversational intimacy; ; fortunately, he soon pared the volume down, making the characterization more natural. Tenors Eric Taylor and Chad Shelton brought sturdy voices and dignified demeanors to the roles, respectively, of Blanche’s brother and the chaplain.

The entire group of nuns joined voices with breadth and sweetness in their Ave Maria and Ave Verum Corpus, and held their own alongside the HGO Orchestra’s heft in the climactic Salve Regina.

Conductor Patrick Summers spurred the singers and orchestra to make the opening of that Salve Regina so forceful that they thwarted one of the opera’s most arresting moments—nearly drowning out the first slash of the offstage guillotine. That misstep apart, Summers and the orchestra captured the score’s ever-changing sounds and moods vividly, from the silky allure of Poulenc’s fleeting bursts of lyricism to the ferocity that depicts the revolutionaries and the fearsome swagger of the march that opens the finale.

Zambello’s staging brought out not only the natures of the individual characters—from Madame de Croissy’s dignity and Madame Lidoine’s warmth to Sister Constance’s charm—but also made the nuns into a cohesive group. Whether they were warily taking a vote for martyrdom or resignedly exchanging their habits for civilian clothes, they were wholly believable.

Hildegard Bechtler’s sets, dominated by stark, almost-bare walls, conveyed the nuns’ ascetic existence and focused attention on the principals.  But in the final scene, the walls left so little space for the action that the nuns were clustered at one side and a small group of spear-toting revolutionaries at the other. That hardly created a powerful scenic vista.

Worse still, before the nuns began their procession to the guillotine, the wall at the center opened to reveal a chamber bathed in yellow light: After each nun climbed the stairs onto the scaffold, she stopped there and faced the audience for a moment before going to her death. The stilted directorial gambit by Zambello robbed the nuns’ final steps of the grim relentlessness that makes it so heart-rending.

Dialogues of the Carmelites will be repeated 2 p.m. Sunday, and 7:30 p.m. Jan. 19 and Jan. 22 at Wortham Theater Center. houstongrandopera.org; 713-228-6737.

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