Saturday, February 28, 2015

French Revolution In Opera

Last week I saw two operas set in the time of Robespierre's relentless beheadings.   The first, Andrea Chénier, broadcast from the Royal Opera House in London, was romantic and passionate as it centers around a love story between a poet and a misfortunate young aristocrat. The second, Washington National Opera's premiere of Dialogues of the Carmelites was dark and contemplative, as one could expect from a piece set in a convent. Both operas are based on true events and both culminate with their characters heading for the guillotine. Both made me think of Islamic State terror.

London's Royal Opera House secured Jonas Kaufmann, currently the world's most suitable tenor for the role of French poet André Marie Chénier, who was guillotined in 1794 on Robespierre's orders.  Soprano-du-jour Eva-Maria Westbroek was his lover Maddalena di Coigny.  In reality, Chénier never met such a woman.  But he did write a poem about tribulations of a fellow captive Duchess of Fleury,  whose maiden name was de Coigny.  As fate would have it,  the doomed poet lost his head just three days before Robespierre met the same fate.  The tyrant's death brought an end to the Reign of Terror and mass beheadings in France. 

Jonas Kaufmann and Eva-Maria Westbrok as Chenier and Maddalena
Kaufmann and Westbrook made the final moments of Maddalena and Chénier a truly romantic affair ending in a glorious death.  One left the theater energized and inspired with a, sort of, love-conquers-all, who-cares-about-death feeling. 

Not so, after Dialogues of the Carmelites. Francis Poulenc's mature 1957 masterpiece is powerful in a depressive way. Death in his work is not a way to bright eternity, but rather to a frightening unknown.  It is a sword looming above one's head and rattling one's soul. Much that the nuns invoke their faith to give them strength, and vote to sacrifice their lives for God's greater glory, and defy the authorities even if only in small ways - they are undeniably scared.  No one conveys that more clearly than Dolora Zajick's powerful Madame de Croissy, the convent's ailing prioress who with her dying breath asks forgiveness for being afraid of death. Perhaps she would be more reconciled with it if she knew she was being spared the ignominious death at the scaffold. I have never seen Zajick act so well.  Maybe she was waiting for this role to pour out her soul.

Dialogues of the Carmelites, Final Scene, Washington National Opera
Leah Crocetto offers a warm portrayal of Madame Lidoine, the new prioress who takes over after Madame de Croissy's demise. Layla Claire is convincing as young and jittery Blanche de la Force, as is Ashley Emerson as Sister Constance, a happy-go-lucky peasant-turned-nun.  Alan Held stands out in the relatively small role of Blanche's father.  Antony Walker, whom I know mainly as a vivacious conductor, hopping on the podium while directing mostly bel canto operas at Lisner, acquitted himself valiantly with the complex 20th century work on Monday.

Like Giordano's Chénier, Poulenc's opera is based on a real-life event from 1794.  During the closing days of the Rein of Terror, 16 Carmelite nuns from Compiégne were guillotined for refusing to renounce their vocation. They renewed their vows before climbing up the scaffold and went to their death chanting Veni Creator Spiritus.  Poulenc changed that to Salve Regina. Interestingly, the nuns were executed just days before André Chénier and were buried at the same Picpus Cemetery in Paris. 

Hildegard Bechtler's set design is a simple circular structure that enables a change of scene with a simple spin, and lighting is used effectively to create meaningful shadows.  An early example is a servant's shadow that scares Blanche.  All the audience can see is a vague shape moving furtively across the wall before it is as startled as the audience by Blanche's scream backstage.

Poulenc had a close encounter with decapitation in 1936 when a friend of his got killed in a violent car crash in Hungary.   The experience had a life-changing effect on him.  Soon after the tragedy, he went on a pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Rocamadour in southwestern France.  While on his knees before a statue of Virgin Mary, blackened from years of exposure to candle smoke, he is said to have had a profound religious experience.  One of the first results was his gorgeous work Litanies à la Vierge Noire.

I learned about Litanies from Poulenc's grandnephew Christophe who produced an intimate portrayal of his famous family member based on personal accounts of people who lived and worked with the composer.  Among them is Poulenc's favorite soprano Denise Duval, who excelled in the role of Blanche.  Christophe's documentary  titled Francis Poulenc: Impressions first takes viewers to Rocamadour where the chaplain, Father Vigouroux, talks about the composer's link to the sanctuary in troubadour fashion, accompanying himself on the harp.

Litanies was followed by Mass in G, Dialogues des Carmélites and ultimately Poulenc's best known work Gloria.

Flooded as we are these days by news of beheadings at the hands of Islamic State militants and henchmen working for Mexican drug cartels, one would be tempted to think these macabre reports have something to do with revivals of works such as  Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, Dialogues or Chénier, whose heroes end up on the scaffold.  But grand opera houses usually schedule their programs years ahead of time.  Islamic State began its organized campaign of death and destruction about a year ago and it was not immediately clear how far it would go.  

Whatever the reason for reviving these great operas, they make one ponder on the state of mind of the people condemned to a grisly death by fanatics. Poulenc's opera probably conveys it more accurately,  but Giordano's romanticized version makes us want to believe in his, especially when brought to life by one Jonas Kaufmann.

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