`Dialogues' in D.C. promises to close on heavenly note

Poulenc's work speaks directly and grippingly

Stage: Theater, Music, Dance

July 29, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Of all the musically and theatrically effective finales in opera, one remains unsurpassed for sheer, crushing emotional weight.

In the closing moments of Francis Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites, a group of nuns, unjustly, absurdly accused of crimes against the French Revolution, intone the ancient prayer Salve Regina on the walk to the guillotine. One by one, their voices are stilled, each hideous thud of the blade slicing through the music, but unable to destroy the faith behind it.

Poulenc transformed the true story of these women - 16 Carmelites were executed on a single July evening in 1794, only days before the Reign of Terror ended - into an opera with extraordinary sensitivity, insight and beauty.

Since its premiere in 1957, Dialogues of the Carmelites has been widely recognized as one of the great masterworks of 20th-century opera. But productions do not come around nearly often enough, which makes this weekend's presentation by Opera International in Washington all the more notable. (Baltimore Opera staged the work once, 20 years ago. Washington National Opera has never staged it. )

Opera International, founded in 1994 as a vehicle for emerging and established singers, will present the opera in English, rather then its original French. In any language, Poulenc's work - speaks directly and grippingly.

The opera introduces some fictional elements to provide context and extra points of connection to the tragic tale. At the heart of the story is an aristocratic young woman, Blanche, who joins the cloistered Carmelite order, only to have her dedication tested. First, she witnesses the agonizing death of the old Prioress who had welcomed her into the convent. Then the reality of the revolution outside the walls encroaches, and Blanche flees, disguising herself as a servant in her father's house.

But when she learns that the Carmelites have been arrested and condemned to death, Blanche is drawn to the execution site. Seeing their calm acceptance of their fate, Blanche rejoins the sisters and embraces martyrdom with them.

Each character in the opera is superbly etched by the music, from the perpetually upbeat Sister Constance to the protective Mother Marie. Above all, Poulenc opens a window into the feelings of these women, feelings we have all had - fear of death, confusion over duty and sacrifice, doubts about faith.

The composer happened to face those particular conflicts in a big way at the time he wrote the opera, which no doubt accounts for the work's communicative power. This is not some routine costume drama, but a deep-felt study of humanity and inhumanity, lightness and darkness, despair and hope.

Ultimately, despite the almost unbearable sight and sound of the final scene, Dialogues of the Carmelites becomes an uplifting experience, reminding us of the potential nobility of the human heart.

For more theater, classical music and dance events, see Page 31.

Dialogues of the Carmelites

Where: Lisner Auditorium, 21st and H streets N.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, 4 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $20 to $50

Call: 301-365-3479, 202-432-7328, or visit www. operaintl.org

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