The Prayer at the Heart of a ‘Quintessentially French’ Opera

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lennygoran
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The Prayer at the Heart of a ‘Quintessentially French’ Opera

Post by lennygoran » Fri May 03, 2019 7:55 am

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The Prayer at the Heart of a ‘Quintessentially French’ Opera


By Joshua Barone

May 2, 2019

When Yannick Nézet-Séguin learned a few years ago that he would be the next music director of the Metropolitan Opera, he thought about works he was especially eager to conduct. Two came to mind: Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” and Poulenc’s “Dialogues des Carmélites.”

Both, as it turned out, were featured in his first season in the position. “Pelléas” returned to the Met in January, and John Dexter’s spare and poignant 1977 production of “Dialogues” will come back for three performances beginning Friday.

“I’m almost a little sad that I did this back-to-back with ‘Pelléas,’” Mr. Nézet-Séguin said in an interview at the Met. “Now I’ll have to wait a few years before I get a chance to revisit them.”

“Dialogues,” inspired by a true story of Carmelite nuns who were guillotined as casualties of the French Revolution’s anti-religious fervor, was written in the 1950s and first performed in 1957. It is a rarity among operas of that era: firmly established in the repertory, beloved by musicians and audiences alike.

“The power of this piece is all that’s nonreligious: how, within the context of a community, you have power struggles, fear, lack of trust,” Mr. Nézet-Séguin said. “And now, more than ever, we see how important it is for women to stand up for themselves in a society that wanted to leave them on the side.”

While Mr. Nézet-Séguin has had a virtually lifelong love for “Dialogues,” this revival will be his first time conducting it. Well, kind of: He worked on the opera in his mid-20s, when he was the chorus master of Opéra de Montréal in Canada.

“It just brought a very special emotion,” Mr. Nézet-Séguin recalled. “Maybe because I was raised Catholic and knew a lot of nuns when I was a child.”

He grew up in Quebec, attending Mass often and finding himself fascinated by nuns’ dedication to God and prayer. This led to involvement with his church’s choir — which may be why, he said, he didn’t experience the same crisis of faith many of his peers did as teenagers: “For me, going to Mass was about singing.”


Asked about his favorite page from Poulenc’s score, Mr. Nézet-Séguin chose a prayer — and not the Salve Regina that ends the opera, as the nuns are executed one by one. Instead, he picked a setting of the Ave Maria that they sing near the beginning of Act II. Here are edited excerpts from a conversation about it.

Why this page?

It was actually almost impossible to decide on one. It’s like choosing a favorite child. But this highlights what’s so special about this opera, which is not only the highly religious context, but also how religion is used as an expressive vehicle.

The Ave Maria starts with the nuns humming under Mère Marie [the second in command at the convent]. Most of the opera is about the conflict and competition between her and the new prioress. She says before this: Let’s agree to obey our new leader, not only with our mouths, but also from our hearts.

This is where Poulenc is such a genius, and a bit like Verdi: with minimal effects, which are so direct. The brass have this chord that indicates something solemn, but then the cellos intervene with this beautiful C sharp, which creates a dissonance.

This leads to the prayer, which is divided in the chorus. And it’s just so beautiful; every beat is more beautiful than the other. Poulenc is asking here for the music to be “très lié” — it has to be legato and intimate. People often assume that prayer is slightly distant, but it’s the opposite here.


Poulenc is far from the first composer to include prayer in opera.

With composers you often see a kind of struggle with religion. Whenever they set prayer to music, it reveals something intimate. For Beethoven, it was anger at having to put some of the Credo text in his “Missa Solemnis,” which comes out as something unsingable. In the case of Poulenc, his partner in life [Lucien Roubert] was struggling with disease and death.

Poulenc became obsessed with writing “Dialogues,” and that was his way of coming to terms with life after death. This is why, I believe, it touches the essential question of life after death and why this piece goes beyond your own humanity. You hear the religious aspect of it, but you know it’s so much more.

Can you also describe what this moment shows about how Poulenc sets text?

In such a quintessentially French piece, the cadence is important, much like “Pelléas.” It’s called “Dialogues” — so it’s based on dialogues, it’s very wordy. Most of it feels like recitative. It’s rare that we can identify something that feels like an aria.

In “Pelléas,” you get this huge recitative, but Debussy being Debussy, it’s much less vertical. It’s all about horizontality. It should feel like swimming. “Dialogues” should feel like anything but swimming. It’s so similar to “Pelléas” in the setting of the text, but it’s a totally different experience. It’s so much more structured. There’s always something feeling the beat; the chords are like pillars of a church.

What do you mean when you say “quintessentially French”?

The piece is French, as a context, because of the Revolution. But musically it is, too, in being as refined and complex as “Pelléas” or anything by Ravel. It’s also the successor of Fauré, and some Saint-Saëns.

There is a restraint. This opera presents you the text and the music in a really streamlined way. It affects the soul and the emotion of the listener, in a very direct way. And that I find really French.




https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/02/arts ... lites.html

John F
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Re: The Prayer at the Heart of a ‘Quintessentially French’ Opera

Post by John F » Fri May 03, 2019 8:19 am

What I'm looking forward to particularly tonight is Karita Mattila as Mme. Lidoine, the new prioress.
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Re: The Prayer at the Heart of a ‘Quintessentially French’ Opera

Post by lennygoran » Fri May 03, 2019 8:58 am

John F wrote:
Fri May 03, 2019 8:19 am
What I'm looking forward to particularly tonight is Karita Mattila as Mme. Lidoine, the new prioress.
John will be interested in your report on it if you choose to put one up here-we'll be down in Wilmington for these events:

"The 2019 Festival (April 27-May 4), a bold exploration of law, redemption, and unlikely friendships in a divided world, spotlights works that are accessible to newcomers but will also thrill lifelong opera fans. On the docket: a delightful double bill of SCALIA/GINSBURG (composer Derrick Wang's one-act opera about the friendship between Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia) paired with TRIAL BY JURY (Gilbert & Sullivan's beloved courtroom comedy). We will also present one of the most successful contemporary operas of our time, Jake Heggie’s DEAD MAN WALKING. Based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean with a libretto by Terrence McNally, this modern masterpiece about a death row inmate and the nun who becomes his reluctant spiritual adviser is unlike anything we’ve presented in our history. "

I see Carmelites is being done HD style next Sat May 11th. Regards, Len

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Re: The Prayer at the Heart of a ‘Quintessentially French’ Opera

Post by John F » Sat May 04, 2019 8:07 am

First of all, I was mistaken: Karita Mattila took the part of Mme. de Croissy, the old prioress, whose harrowing death scene is an opportunity for a powerful singing actress which she certainly is. That said, her voice sounded rather weak and unsteady. Maybe it was one of those bad nights that singers sometimes have, or maybe the prioress's vocal line doesn't fit her voice - it's written for a mezzo-soprano or even a contralto, and Mattila is definitely a soprano. The opera is to be broadcast next Saturday and we can hear for ourselves.

The Met's production by the important theatre director John Dexter is brilliant; 41 years after its first night, it has lost nothing in dramatic credibility and power. The cast were all believable in their roles, they acted with the focus of a stage play - indeed, I thought most of them acted better than they sang, not just Karita Mattila. In one respect the revival by another stage director (Dexter died years ago) was careless. In the final scene, Poulenc has composed the repeated thud of the guillotine as the nuns are executed into the music, but the timing of the nuns' walk to the scaffold was off, and the oldest nun had to tuck her cane under her arm and hustle upstage to make it in time.

This was the first performance I've heard in the house by Yannick Nezet-Seguin, and while the orchestra sounded as good as ever, its playing wasn't always quite together, the brass including the horns were sometimes insecure, and some of the balances weren't right - I heard too much of the bass tuba. From what Nezet-Seguin said in the interview quoted above, I would have expected him to correct such things. He also conducted "Pelleas" this season; I heard it on the radio and thought it was nowhere near matching the subtlety of playing and depth of feeling of James Levine's performances of this music. Well, Levine has been cast into outer darkness and we're stuck with Nezet-Seguin, possibly for many years; I'm hoping he will grow in artistry as indeed Levine did as he gained experience and artistic maturity, and made the Met's orchestra a superbly responsive instrument.

Should Lenny see it? Given that productions and acting mean so much to him, I'd recommend it. For much of the opera the music is thin, but it gathers continuity and force in the second half (the Met divides Poulenc's 3 acts into 2 parts, with an intermission after about 90 minutes following the arrival of the new prioress). It's a safe bet that he and Sue have never seen anything like the final scene, unless of course they've been to "Carmelites" before.
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Re: The Prayer at the Heart of a ‘Quintessentially French’ Opera

Post by lennygoran » Sat May 04, 2019 8:17 am

John thanks-we've have seen it before-that production-it was extremely effective--I see I don't have it on VCR-recently I've been trying to get all my VCR's into some kind of order-it's a massive project-hundreds of VCR cassettes-things I forgot I even had-who knows--the VCR's were even less organized than my LP and audiotape collections-my CD collection is in pretty much alphabetical order in about 30 boxes. Space is always a concern as well and i made a big mistake putting more than one opera on many of the VCR's. I'm nearly done with the project but I'm still deciding on the best way to store the VCR's. Incidentally I rediscovered a lot of material you gave me-VHS tapes and audio cassettes! Len :lol:

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Re: The Prayer at the Heart of a ‘Quintessentially French’ Opera

Post by John F » Sat May 04, 2019 8:49 am

"Dialogues des Carmelites" is a mixture of historical fact and pure fiction. Trying to sort these out, I found in Wikipedia that while the arrest and execution of the Carmelite nuns of Compiegne did indeed happen, they did not include Blanche de la Force, a fictional character who is the leading role in the opera. The nuns are led to the scaffold not by the prioress Madame Lidoine, who in history was the last to be executed, but by the novice Constance, who in the opera is the last to go, panics, but is given courage by Blanche who appears out of the crowd. The martyrs included the old prioress Mme. de Croissy, so her death scene in the opera is fictional, and the sub-prioress Marie-Anne [or Antoinette] Brideau - if the opera's sub-prioress Mother Marie is based on her, then her escape from the guillotine is fiction.

More generally, the Reign of Terror in France, the situation which drives the action to its climax, didn't last nearly as long as I'd believed; it was over in 13 months, during which 300,000 people were arrested and 17,000 were executed, mostly outside Paris. The end came with the execution of Robespierre and Saint-Just, the moving force of the Committee of Public Safety which had those thousands of innocent people killed - in effect, the killers wound up killing each other. How did this happen?
Wikipedia wrote:The fall of Robespierre was brought about by a combination of those who wanted more power for the Committee of Public Safety (and a more radical policy than he was willing to allow) and the moderates who completely opposed the revolutionary government. They had, between them, made the Law of 22 Prairial [which made conviction and execution of almost anybody very easy] one of the charges against him, so that, after his fall, to advocate terror would be seen as adopting the policy of a convicted enemy of the republic, putting the advocate's own head at risk.
Who was Saint-Just? He was the Terror's chief man of action and Robespierre's spokesman, and went down with his chief; both were guillotined on the same day. Neither of them is mentioned in Poulenc's opera; Saint-Just is a major character in Buchner's play "Danton's Death," which has also been made into an opera. A tragic irony: the end of Robespierre, Saint-Just, and the Reign of Terror came just 11 days after the nuns were executed.
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Re: The Prayer at the Heart of a ‘Quintessentially French’ Opera

Post by maestrob » Sat May 04, 2019 11:40 am

The Reign of Terror is very personal for me: I had family who fled persecution in France in 1791. My grandmother painted a copy of a family painting of my ancestors' home in northern France that hangs on my wall: my nephew has a portrait of my many times great grandfather hanging on his step-mother's wall as well. Details are vague in my mind now, but I grew up with stories about the horror of those years told to me by my mother and grandmother. I remember that my ancestors fled by coach through southern France with as much wealth as they could carry and sailed to St. Thomas, then later fled a rebellion there, establishing themselves in Philadelphia, where they became wine importers in the 1800's.

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Re: The Prayer at the Heart of a ‘Quintessentially French’ Opera

Post by Belle » Sat May 04, 2019 5:20 pm

maestrob wrote:
Sat May 04, 2019 11:40 am
The Reign of Terror is very personal for me: I had family who fled persecution in France in 1791. My grandmother painted a copy of a family painting of my ancestors' home in northern France that hangs on my wall: my nephew has a portrait of my many times great grandfather hanging on his step-mother's wall as well. Details are vague in my mind now, but I grew up with stories about the horror of those years told to me by my mother and grandmother. I remember that my ancestors fled by coach through southern France with as much wealth as they could carry and sailed to St. Thomas, then later fled a rebellion there, establishing themselves in Philadelphia, where they became wine importers in the 1800's.
How interesting that you have an ancestral connection to this. Yesterday I found these comments on Amazon in a review under the CD I want (but which is 'not available') of "Dialogues". It provided compelling reading:

The "Dialogues of the Carmelites" is an opera that just sucks me in. The sensuous music combines with the theme of personal renunciation and Catholic grace colliding with the senseless violence of the French Revolution's Terror, in which a radical political agenda seems almost inevitably to fall from utopianism to demented violence, to make a great opera. Based on a 1949 screenplay by right-wing French writer George Bernanos, "Dialogues" was likely making a controversial political statement in the 1950s, a time when radical leftism was de rigeur in French intellectual circles, by taking the viewpoint of the Carmelites. That political message has essentially disappeared today with widespread consensus on the often tragic consequences of leftist revolutions. "Dialogues" also was created for an audience with clear memories of *the divisive government-sponsored anti-clericalism that France experienced in the first decades of the 20th-century. Combine that with Poulenc's continued use of clear tonality and clear, memorable melodic material in a context where avant-garde composers - in one sense, the musical equivalent to the Jacobins - had lain down the gauntlet and moved to a dissonant, atonal systematization, "Dialogues" comes across as a self-consciously conservative statement.

I disagree vigorously with the sentence I've italicized! It seems the lessons of history are doomed to be repeated when resentment and envy are whipped up by people who either don't understand or don't care about the effect hatred has upon sections of society. We have this going on here with one candidate in our election having her dog shot and left in front of a poster in her electorate, candidates' faces smeared with nazi symbols and foul social media attacks. When you create a 'them' and 'us' mentality it shouldn't be surprising when violence follows. As I asked friends recently, "why does this not constitute hate speech when insulting minorities does"? This is a dangerous new set of circumstances in Australian politics we've never experienced before. But our opposition is making sneering comments about "the wealthy", "the top end of town", "people shirking their obligations - particularly self-funded retirees (like me)"....our incomes are a "gift" apparently, whereas the Aged Pension and government welfare are not!!! :twisted: On and on and on it goes.... Whip the people into class warfare and hysteria and violence follows shortly behind.

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Re: The Prayer at the Heart of a ‘Quintessentially French’ Opera

Post by John F » Sun May 05, 2019 5:21 am

I see that the Met's revival will be its last HD theatre show of the season, on Saturday May 11 with a repeat on Wednesday May 15, and eventually will be telecast on PBS as well.

Incidentally, I agree with your disagreement with the "review" on Amazon, where anybody can post anything they like, unedited. There is no "widespread consensus on the often tragic consequences of leftist revolutions." The consequence of the American revolution was hardly tragic, and indeed France's tragedy of the Reign of Terror was very brief: it ended in just 13 months with the deposing and execution of its chief perpetrators, Robespierre and Saint-Just. The events in a revolution, leftist or rightist, which must usually though not always be violent, may indeed include many tragedies, personal and social, but that's a different matter from the consequences.
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Re: The Prayer at the Heart of a ‘Quintessentially French’ Opera

Post by lennygoran » Mon May 06, 2019 4:58 am

Now Tony weighs in on it.

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A New Generation Takes Up ‘Dialogues des Carmélites’


By Anthony Tommasini

May 5, 2019

It’s still too soon to size up Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s vision for the Metropolitan Opera as its music director. But his main responsibility is to preside over as many performances as possible and maintain the highest artistic standards throughout the company. Though he has led only three productions this season, his first in the role, he has proved himself exceptionally suited to the challenge in each.

In December, he led an elegant yet impassioned account of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” In January, he drew a dark and sensual performance of Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” from an inspired orchestra and cast. And on Friday he conducted a glowing, grippingly volatile performance of Poulenc’s wrenching “Dialogues des Carmélites.”



The opera tells the story of a Carmelite convent whose nuns are condemned to death during the French Revolution. In this revival of John Dexter’s powerfully spare and dramatically dead-on 1977 production, Mr. Nézet-Séguin was consistently attentive to refinements of the music and the careful way Poulenc sets words so that vocal lines seem almost conversational, those “quintessentially French” qualities, as he said in a recent interview with The New York Times.

Yet, seizing on every piercing chord and astringent harmony, he also brought out boldly the contemporary elements of Poulenc’s musical language, which subtly draws from diverse styles including modal French sacred music, Impressionist colorings and Neo-Classical fanfares and chorales, even sly hints of salon room insouciance during scenes in which aristocrats lament their political predicament.


The opera begins in the library of the Marquis de la Force (the sturdy baritone Jean-François Lapointe, in his Met debut), who is deeply worried about his fearful daughter, Blanche, here the resplendent mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, who achingly conveys the fraught and shifting emotions of this complex character. Blanche’s brother, the Chevalier de la Force (the sweet-voiced tenor David Portillo in an endearing performance), shares his father’s concerns about Blanche. As they talk, revolution is fomenting right outside their home. Mr. Nézet-Séguin emphasized every slashing chord and tumultuous outburst during this scene. I’ve never heard it performed with such ferocity.

In a poignant scene, Blanche asks her father’s permission to enter the Carmelite convent. But first Blanche must endure an interview with Madame de Croissy, the convent’s older and ailing prioress, here the great soprano Karita Mattila. The prioress warns Blanche that the convent is not a refuge from fear, or life, or anything, but a house of devotion. But Ms. Mattila’s steely prioress can’t help succumbing to Blanche’s touching combination of fragility and determination, as suggested by Ms. Leonard.


Ms. Mattila was harrowing during the prioress’s death scene. Facing the end, writhing in pain and despair, she pleads for relief and doubts God’s presence. Ms. Mattila made her character at once terrifying and a sad wreck of a woman.

As written by Poulenc, these sisters come together as a religious community in ensemble scenes of prayer, deliberation and crisis. Yet he gives each of them a distinct character; under Mr. Nézet-Séguin (and the revival stage director, David Kneuss), these impressive singers found their individual dramatic voices, especially the beguiling, pure-toned soprano Erin Morley as the chatterbox Constance; the mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill as the benevolent Mother Marie, who longs for martyrdom with her “daughters” but is denied it; and the soprano Adrianne Pieczonka as Madame Lidoine, the new prioress, who arrives with a slightly sanctimonious air, only to find inner strength and heroism.

The final scene, in which the nuns, one by one, walk to the guillotine singing Poulenc’s forlornly beautiful setting of the Salve Regina, felt more horrific than ever. And moving — perhaps because artists of a new generation have taken over this great work, this classic production and, in a way, the Met, starting with Mr. Nézet-Séguin.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/05/arts ... eview.html

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