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The Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne
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Towards the light: Juilliard students present Poulenc’s Dialogues

It started with a bang and ended with a whimper. Juilliard’s production of Francis Poulenc’s opera Dialogues des Carmélites opened on Wednesday, April 21 and the performance started out strong.

Francis Poulenc: Dialogues des Carmélites

Tharanga Goonetilleke (Blanche de la Force); Paul Appleby (Chevalier de la Force); Lacey Jo Benter (Madame de Croissy); Emalie Savoy (Madame Lidoine); Renée Tatum (Mother Marie of the Incarnation); Haeran Hong (Sister Constance); Timothy Beenken (Marquis de la Force); Carla Jablonski (Mother Jeanne); Naomi O'Connell (Sister Mathilde); Javier Ernesto Bernardo (The Chaplain); Daniel Curran (First Commissary); Drew Santini (First Officer); Adam Richardson (M. Javelinot); Adrian Rosas (Second Commissary); Andreas Aroditis (Jailer); Timothy McDevitt (Thierry). Juilliard Opera and the Juilliard Orchestra. Conductor Anne Manson. Director Fabrizio Melano.

 

A dramatic swath of red fabric dominated the stage in the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre and the Juilliard orchestra, lead by Anne Manson, launched bravely into the action.

In the first scenes, set in the home of the Marquis de la Force in the midst of Revolutionary Paris, tenor Paul Appleby sang with great dramatic and musical impetus as the Chevalier de la Force. He sounded at ease singing in French and was among only a small number of the cast able to carry off Poulenc’s syllabic vocal setting with both fluid phrasing and a clear line reading of the text. As his father the Marquis, Timothy Beenken looked and sounded out of place. A truly terrible wig did him no favors and, as can only be expected in a student production, he simply seemed too green for the role. This was also the case with Tharanga Goonetilleke as his daughter Blanche.

In an opera full of compelling characters, Blanche is the most crucial because, by inhabiting both the outside world and the sanctuary of the convent, she becomes the lynchpin of the action and the audience’s proxy. (Furthermore, as Poulenc was famously called a half monk, half delinquent by the Paris press, she also serves as a surrogate for the composer himself.) Her intense fears and ultimate moral and existential dilemma should evoke empathy, not sympathy. Rather than seeming troubled or conflicted, Ms. Goonetilleke seemed mercurial or even coquettish. Blanche need not be likeable, but her moods must follow the psychology of Poulenc’s vivid orchestration. From her awkwardly timed entrance, it was clear that Ms. Goonetilleke, while a competent and attractive performer and singer, needs more time to develop the sensitivity required for this role.

Poulenc’s opera is filled with moments of dramatic prescience that parallel a building musical foreboding. To create a compelling momentum in this opera of short scenes and tableaux, it is necessary for these moments to be connected in a sort of symbolic storyline that is as crucial as the actual plot. For example, in the interview between Blanche and the Old Prioress, it must be made clear that Madame de Croissy has taken the young girl’s measure not because the older woman is prophetic, but rather because she identifies with Blanche and shares her fears. As the Prioress, Lacey Jo Benter sang and acted well but the impact of her death was lessened by the pallid approach to her first scene with Blanche.

All of the singers, not just Ms. Benter, suffered from director Fabrizio Melano’s choice to connect the various scenes and interludes by stringing them together without blackouts. At best this was awkward for the singers left onstage, but it occasionally had confusing consequences, especially in the instances where two scenes set months or years apart became effectively elided. Furthermore, because the lights remained on in between scenes, the audience sat and watched as Ms. Benter walked onstage and climbed into bed immediately before the death scene in which the Prioress asks if she might finally be well enough to sit in a chair, bedridden as she is with her fatal illness. Her death, which should be excruciating to watch, was therefore a little bizarre.

Such inconsistencies aside, many elements of Melano’s direction served the drama well. The red curtain was particularly inspired as it subtly evoked not only the typical theatrical curtain, but also a patriotic flag and even the guillotine itself. The beam of light used to delineate the convent from the outside world was visually arresting, and the intense glare from the stage right entrance produced silhouettes on the convent wall – clear physical projections of the worldly illusions mentioned in the libretto.

Among the rest of the student cast, Renée Tatum and Haeran Hong made strong impressions as Mother Marie and Soeur Constance, respectively. Tatum imbued her role as the Assistant Prioress with the required gravitas and she used all of Poulenc’s generous musical substance as inspiration for her subtle acting. Not only did Ms. Hong perform with the same musical style and charm she exhibited during the Metropolitan Opera National Council Audition finals, but she also portrayed a fully realized character from the moment she entered as the young novice. She exceeded expectations of any student and could easily perform the role in a professional production. Both her voice and her face have an angelic beauty and she appeared both brave and vulnerable in the opera’s crushing final moments, when Constance is left alone as a single voice at the end of the Salve Regina only to be joined by Blanche at the last second.

In the end, it speaks to the level of the students at Juilliard that the school is able to present such a complex, demanding opera. But it is an even greater testament to the quality of Poulenc’s opera that only rare performers can truly do it justice.

Alison Moritz

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