For many years, critics didn't take French composer Francis Poulenc or his music very seriously, even after his first opera was premiered in 1947.
Then again, that entry into the operatic realm wasn't likely to win over skeptics. The title is "The Breasts of Tiresias," and the surreal plot includes a man who fathers 40,000 children in one day.
But Poulenc was the real deal, a composer with a distinctive flair for lyrical melody and an ear for exquisite harmony to support it. Those gifts were widely recognized and acclaimed when he created his second work for the stage, "Dialogues of the Carmelites," first heard in 1957.
This haunting tragedy, which concerns a community of nuns during the cruelest days of the French Revolution, gets a rare local production this weekend thanks to Peabody Opera Theatre. It's the first time the masterpiece was been performed here since the Baltimore Opera Company presented it 29 years ago.
"Dialogues" marks the third annual venture in Peabody Opera's collaboration with the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric. Peabody Conservatory voice students gain experience performing in a full-sized opera house (the conservatory's concert hall is a fraction of the size). The Peabody Symphony Orchestra likewise enjoys fresh challenges.
"This was the perfect year to do 'Dialogues.' We have the voices we need," said JoAnn Kulesza, music director and interim chair of the opera department at Peabody.
Those voices get to sing some of Poulenc's most radiant music.
Yes, the story is bleak, as characters face painful questions about belief and sacrifice, and the ending is truly breathtaking as nuns slowly walk to the guillotine (thankfully, offstage, but still).
For all of that, the melodic lines frequently soar to remarkably beautiful effect, making "Dialogues" stand out among mid-century operas for its unapologetic lyricism. The composer was the first to acknowledge the relative conservatism of his style: "You must forgive my Carmelites," he said. "They can sing only tonal music."
Poulenc's often poignant harmonies and transparent, prismatic orchestration provide the finishing touches on the opera, which has a libretto he fashioned from a drama by Georges Bernanos.
The story is based in fact, tracing the fate of the Carmelites of Compiegne who ran afoul of anti-religion edicts and were arrested in 1794. The fictional Blanche de la Force, daughter of a marquis and brother of a chevalier, becomes the central focus of the plot when she seeks to enter the convent.
"She grew up without a mother — her mother died in childbirth," said soprano Alexandra Razskazoff, a senior at Peabody who will sing the role of Blanche. "She is always so fearful, afraid of her own shadow. She mostly just wants to be loved, to find peace and sanctuary."
That doesn't quite work out for Blanche, but she does learn much about herself in that convent and, especially, after running back home. She returns to the sisters in time to join them in martyrdom, much to the dismay of onlookers.
"I have been able to hold it together pretty well in rehearsals of that scene," Razskazoff said, "but I can't promise I will in performance. Oh, man, it is very, very chilling."
That finale is the most famous part of the opera, but there is much more to "Dialogues," Kulesza added.
"It's about faith and the struggle of youth into adulthood," she said."And it's about a situation that has repeated all throughout history — someone not agreeing with someone else's beliefs."
If you go
"Dialogue of the Carmelites" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, 140 W. Mt. Royal Ave. Tickets are $25 to $35. Call 410-900-1150 or go to lyricoperahouse.com.