“I do not despise the world. I simply don’t know how to live in it,” sings religiously apprehensive Blanche (performed by Amanda Majeski) to her affectionate father, Marquis de la Force (James Maddalena) in the last Pittsburgh opera of the season. In this opera by the 20th century French composer Francis Poulenc, every encounter with the profane produces in Blanche a state of unbearable unease: she must devote her life to the contemplation of the agony of Christ. Amanda’s expressive soprano weaves the harmony of disquiet, as her character Blanche is trying to evacuate every drop of precious strength from her fragile inner nature as she prepares to leave her father’s house for the convent. The emphatic moment finally comes after Blanche is mortally frightened by the noise of the riotous crowd. Blanche retires from the world, takes the veil and joins the Carmelite order.
It didn’t take a highly sensitive young aristocrat to experience the turmoil and uncertainty in the late years of the 18th century in Paris. All of France was about to be transformed by the terror of the French Revolution. Poulenc, who also wrote the libretto for the opera based on the play by Georges Bernanos, follows the innovative tradition of his operatic predecessors Gluck and Wagner and admits his debt to the Russian composers Mussorgsky and Stravinsky. The appropriately somber tone, at times reminiscent of liturgical music, of the ariosos and recitatives, creates a continuous unity of discourse between the feeling melodies of the musical score and the human drama of religious passion expressed in the lines of existential libretto. All the elements of this opera are seamlessly interwoven, leaving nothing superfluous in its dramatic fabric: no grandiose arias, no virtuoso ensembles, not even an overture that usually opens the operas of the classical period; just genuine dialogues among the pious equals.
The most puzzling character in the opera is the dying Prioress, Madame de Croissy, who, after a long and somewhat accusatory interrogation, finally gives the blessing to the neophyte Blanche. “I am the prisoner of the holy agony! […]. “Who am I to concern myself with God – let him first concern himself with me,” screams the Prioress in her funereal contralto (performed by Sheila Nadler). Believing that strength, force, suits the realities of nunnery life better than agony, she refuses to accept the young novice’s desire to take the name of Blanche of the Agony of Christ. Blanche de la Force, so it is.
Shared pilgrimage to the holy site of inner strength forms the focal point of Act II and III. The ungodly revolution declares the practice of religious orders illegal. The desecrated convent becomes a testing ground for fear. Different voices express their meaning of it: “One must risk fear,” “Is fear a sickness?” “Fear doesn’t offend God. Fear is not a sin.” Blanche dreads martyrdom, the vow her holy sisters humbly take. Act II contains an abundance of superb lyrical singing based on Christian worship music (most notably, “Ave Maria” and “Ave verum corpus”). Torn by the exigent choice between life and death, both equally menacing, Blanche runs away.
The final scenes of great operas are epitomes of bel canto singing. Scene IV of Dialogues of the Carmelites follows this tradition in a way peculiar to its subject matter: the opera ends in a prayer of a true bel canto quality, the Salve Regina, Mater Misericordiae, as the nuns fearlessly march one by one to the scaffold to be guillotined, suddenly joined by Blanche, who finally mounts the scaffold singing a prayer of her renewed faith in God: Deo Patri sit Gloria (All praise be thine, o risen Lord).
The director, Eric Einhorn, stages a musical drama true to its theme. The endless gripping spectacle reflects the tragic poetry of the plot. The gloomy colors of the scenery are germane to the sacred dialogues’ minimalist stage setting.
The opera offers excellent performers, splendid directing, and expressive conducting by Jean-Luc Tingaud – it is a tour de force.
Final performance Sunday May 8 at 2:00 pm.
Tickets and further information available at www.pittsburghopera.org.