It has been nearly 30 years since Francis Poulenc’s haunting opera “Dialogues of the Carmelites” was staged in Baltimore. No telling when or if it might return, so the opportunity offered this weekend by Peabody Opera Theatre should not be passed up.
This uneven, but ultimately moving, production marks the third annual collaboration between Peabody Conservatory and the Modell/Lyric Performing Arts Center.
The public does not seem to appreciate the value of the venture; attendance each year has been modest, as was the case again Friday night for the first of two performances of “Dialogues.” This valuable partnership deserves to be sustained, not to mention enhanced — increased funding would enable larger, more Lyric-scaled sets, for one thing.
Poulenc’s opera, based on the true story of the Carmelites of Compiegne who were martyred during the French Revolution, focuses on the intimate side of the story.
Blanche, the young, fearful woman of means who decides to enter a convent, is a timeless study in human frailty, dignity and sacrifice. The young nun she befriends, Constance, provides a disarming example of naivete and tenderheartedness. The Prioress, Madame de Croissy, offers disturbing, ever-relevant lessons in the nature of faith and how easily it can be lost.
And so it goes through the rest of the characters in this haunting opera, each one given dimension by Poulenc’s distinctive music.
The composer’s style, with its largely conversational setting of text and darkly lyrical harmonic language, does not appeal instantly to everyone. But those who fall under its spell never tire of the hypnotic pull.
When a poignant melodic line emerges, when a rich chord gets even richer as instrumental colors shift, the effect is magical. And there is no finale in any opera more chilling and riveting than the one Poulenc created for the final scene, when the nuns make their prayerful march to the guillotine. The music achieves a profound beauty that can stay with you for hours afterward.
On Friday night, Alexandra Razskazoff sang radiantly as Blanche. The soprano’s creamy timbre and vividly communicative phrasing, not to mention nuanced acting, gave the character affecting depth. Razskazoff was especially incisive in the scene when Blanche refuses her brother’s entreaties to leave the convent.
Brieann Pasko’s light, bright soprano proved generally effective in an endearing portrayal of Constance. As the gravely ill Madame de Croissy, who has a deathbed premonition of the sisters’ fate, Cynthia Elkins lacked tonal warmth at times, but her fervent phrasing hit home.
Among the other cast members, those showing a good deal of promise included Huanhuan Ma as Madame Lidoine, the new Prioress charged with guiding the nuns as the revolution closes in; and Jaenam Teri Lee as the chaplain forced into hiding.
In the pit, there were occasional intonation and articulation issues, but the Peabody Symphony Orchestra offered expressive warmth throughout. Conductor Steven White guided the performance with admirable sensitivity and concern for subtle detail.
Daniel Ettinger’s bare-bones set, superbly lit by Donald Edmund Thomas, allows for fluid scene changes.
Stage director Patrick Diamond guides the action effectively, for the most part, but a quick walk-on by the whole cast in the opera’s opening minutes doesn’t quite work. Showing a person in modern attire reading a book on one side of the stage wears thin as a way to illustrate the continued resonance of the story. Same for having the chorus pop up similarly dressed.
Most disappointing, though, is Diamond’s handling of the finale. Instead of sending the nuns offstage one by one to face the blade, the production takes a head-on, metaphoric approach. The idea makes a certain sense, but it just doesn’t have enough impact. Fortunately, the incredible music for that scene still does.