My Year of Opera 15: Dialogue of the Carmelites

Oh, man. Wow. I live-tweeted about watching Poulenc’s Dialogue of the Carmelites when I watched it this past Sunday. Long story short: this is the Australian Opera DVD production sung in English without subtitles. I know, I know, but when I saw that the CMU library had just added a video of this opera to its holdings I went straight to the library and checked it out. I dig Poulenc a lot. He is one of my favorite French composers and I was looking forward to watching the opera. I could have found a better production. I should have found a better production. I will purchase and own a better production.

I didn’t know a lot about the story before I watched the opera. Something to do with nuns. The English was hard to understand but I picked up the big issues okay: nervous girl enters a nunnery and has a freaky conversation with the dying abbess. Nun things were happening. Then I grabbed a plot synopsis online somewhere in the middle of Act 2. That, of course, changed everything. Context matters.

Then came Act 3. Oh. My. God. Musically this opera was incredibly strong. Then the drama and the way the music supports the drama. The final scene where (spoiler alert) each of the former nuns willingly walks to their death and the guillotine. The way the choir of nuns diminishes to single voices is creepy and powerful and emotional and everything that opera is supposed to be. I wondered why the choir wasn’t really featured throughout the opera. I figured that hey, Poulenc has a bunch of nuns around, surely there will be big choir moments. Instead, he really reserves the choir for this perfect scene. A lot of choral activity before the final scene would have diminished its impact.

Here are a few of my favorite tweets from the experience. In chronological order.

  • This is pretty much what I want my opera to sound like. There is a freshness to his harmonies but very singable.
  • What is the conventional wisdom on why this opera isn’t done more? Too serious? Not showy enough? Too new?
  • Wow. This dying nun has just gone ‘Salome Crazy.’
  • These nuns are not the same order that produced Maria in the Sound of Music, I know that much.
  • Since all these nuns are going to be beheaded, I’m going to self-medicate with cinnamon Teddy Grahams.
  • Egads! What is that sound they are using for the guillotine?
  • You’ve got to be kidding me.
  • I think this ties with Wozzeck for bleakest ending ever.
  • I need a drink. And a hug. And a puppy.
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