Thirty-one years ago, Opera Theatre of St. Louis pulled off a season that resounds in memory as an artistic volcano, a bonanza, an operatic gold mine, a tour de force. It followed the defining 1982 season, one crowned with Jonathan Miller’s “Così fan tutte,” a show conducted by Calvin Simmons, who died the summer following his and Dr. Miller’s triumphant achievement.
Power of Poulenc
In 1983, perhaps to emphasize the show must go on, Richard Gaddes and company lavished their audiences with hits of substance and brilliance. Two operas were directed by the late, great Colin Graham. The first was his splendid “La Traviata” and second, his esteemed and legendary “Beatrice and Benedict” – the one with the fireflies. Then there was Mark Lamos’s dark and melancholy “Don Giovanni.” The final offering of the season was a quite remarkable double bill.
Frank Corsaro, a certified celebrity and first-rate maverick, was the director of the two shows, and Ron Chase was with him to design the décor and the costumes. The opera at the top of the bill was the world première of a disappointing, one-act, recent discovery of a work by the English composer Frederick Delius, “Margot la Rouge.” This was followed by sheer inventive magic, a two-act opéra bouffe by the 20th-century French composer Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc (1899-1963): “Les mamelles de Tirésias,” or in English, “The Breasts of Tirésias.”
“Mamelles” received its première in Paris in 1947 at the Opera-Comique. Poulenc, who’d run with and contributed to surrealist and dada-ist movements years before, based this romp on a play by Guillaume Apollinaire. It very much is an opera of the prolific and gifted Poulenc’s second youth – a return to those brainy, imaginative avant garde roots. Although Poulenc had been a stalwart soldier in the avant garde in Paris, his music is intoxicatingly melodic, lyrical, insouciant with occasional explosions of emotion. It is decidedly French, a Montparnassian fête scored for jazz orchestra.
Poulenc has been described as a rascal, and he was a gay one at that. He is one of the first “out” homosexual composers in all of history, and had a string of lovers throughout his life. Yet in mid-1930s, without abandoning what he called his “Parisian” sexual proclivities, he returned to the Roman Catholic faith of his childhood.
Stellar cast for ‘Carmelites’
Just as his bifurcated life presented a case study in contradiction, his composing departed dramatically from the high-jinks of “Les mamelles” to a searchingly serious opera, “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” The opera is composed of a dozen scenes presented in three acts. Written in French, its première (in Italian) was at La Scala in 1957.
Opera Theatre’s production of this opera opened (in English) on Wednesday evening. Any worthwhile performance of it would of necessity be is darkly emotional, wrenching and ultimately tragic. Director Robin Guarino’s “Dialogues” is more so. Conspiring with her to bring us this profoundly moving production is Andrew Lieberman’s set, spare but polished to an expressive sheen and thoroughly elegant, and handily adaptable to the various theatrical platforms called for by the action and the complexities of the changes of scene. James F. Ingalls’ lighting is married to the set, and thus is itself a source of affecting dramatic revelation.
The cast is stellar, with Kathy Kaduce as the fragile Blanche de la Force; Meredith Arwady as the volatile first mother prioress; and Christine Brewer as the second prioress, a more mercurial and complex and contemplative character. These three women were sunshine in the dark recesses of this opera, enlightening artistically and emotionally radiant in their principal leading roles. However, because of the intimate one-on-one dialogues that formed propulsive rhythms in the show, all the characters were principals indeed, as was Robert Ainsley’s chorus – an ensemble entirely magnificent musically and dramatically.
Tragedy in the Terror
In the main, the story of the Carmel at Compiégne and its dismembering is true. The tragedy swirled in the gyre of terror of 18th century revolutionary France; at the time (with Robespierre directing things) the French version of the European Enlightenment went madly off the rails. The Revolution’s Reign of Terror manifested itself not as science or the pursuit of demonstrable truth or as humanism but as run-amok savagery, a bloody contradiction of the Enlightenment ethos. The Reign of Terror’s ideological bullies and political psychopaths dragged innocents out of their homes and into the streets, and deposited them in the rat-infested squalor of the Conciergerie. That prison, in turn, fed the guillotine nearby, and established this engine of death as both a macabre symbol of the Reign of Terror and as a most efficient killing machine.
Sixteen Carmelite nuns who lived in community in the Carmel of Compiègne, Oise, were challenged even as the opera begins, even before being sucked into the Terror’s vortex.
The entry of an aristocratic, troubled and rather disruptive young woman, Blanche de la Force, is allowed, with some hesitation, into the Carmel as a novice. The beloved first mother prioress dies a painful, hysterical death, one that was terrifying to the other sisters who were accustomed to witnessing deaths, but deaths delivered more serenely. Then, another wrinkle appears in the carefully pressed fabric of the Carmel: A new prioress is installed, one, brought in from another community, and before mellowing into a sympathetic and generous shepherd, she comes off as rather authoritarian and demanding.
If all of this weren’t enough, the Revolution, which had looked the other way where Compiégne was concerned, suddenly swept in and ordered the nuns to obey the rules of revolutionary suppression of monasteries and convents and demanded they give up their property and disband their community. The Carmelites refused. They were removed, taken to Paris and one by one were beheaded. Going to the blade they sang “Salve regina” – Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy.
Although many may question the phenomenon of cloistered, discalced religious life and regard it as bizarre, this production isolates the Carmel of Compiègne as a singular refuge, one accommodating a collective desire on the part of a group of women to spend their lives in contemplation and prayer with the goal of redemption, not simply for themselves but for all of humankind.
Early in the opera, the mother prioress remarks that some might regard a group of women who neither toil nor spin to be parasites. She denies that characterization because of her belief – her unshakable faith – in the integrity, potency and value of the unceasing prayers of the sisters to the equilibrium of the human family.
Layers of sadness and tragedy
For their dignified intransigence, the Carmelites of Compiègne were executed on July 17, 1794. Eleven days later, on July 28, 1794, Maximilien Robespierre went to the guillotine. He was the ultimate victim of the Terror. Soon after his execution the Reign of Terror came to an end.
There are layers and layers of sadness and tragedy here. There was the execution of 16 innocents who may or may not have been arms of a corrupt political system, but certainly presented no threat to the Revolution. Countless other innocents died as well, bewildered, wondering, “What possibly could I have done?” There was the Reign of Terror itself, and the corrupting narcissistic madness that led a once fair and thoughtful man such as Robespierre to become an architect of terror and a genuine monster.
We today are presented with layers of sadness and tragedy too, and see monsters abroad in our land and others. In America we the privileged tolerate disparities afflicting the disenfranchised – neglect that that contributes to social fragmentation. And abroad, there is the maniacal terrorist juggernaut du jour, ISIS, ironically the name also of the Egyptian mothering goddess, Isis, protector of the poor as well as a friend of the rich.
“Les mamelles de Tirésias,” Francis Poulenc’s first opera, was delicious fun, as bouncy as the beach balls the nuns in that show threw around the stage.
“The Dialogues of the Carmelites,” his second and penultimate opera, is great art, however, and as such it is as instructive as it is beautiful. Art of this concentrated intensity and potential does not throw balls around playfully or rascally, and certainly doesn’t ask us to suspend belief. Rather it encourages its audiences to think, to sharpen its senses, to question the status quo, to take courage and to resist cowardly accommodation of tyrants and liars.
Also, when push comes to shove, when confronted with guillotines of one sort or another, thoughtful individuals, communities and nations must once again dedicate themselves to unraveling complexities – the better to discover good and humane decisions, to making the sacrifices that support them, and when necessary, when it is meet and right, as demonstrated by the Carmelites of Compiègne, it means being willing to lose.