Met's Dialogue of the Carmelites: The Telecast
Thanks to the generosity of a friend, I’ve been able to watch this performance
complete twice this week and the impact of the production has not lessened
in the near quarter century since the telecast – nor since I first experienced it
live, as a teenager a decade before that.
The biggest surprise for me was the performance of Sister Blanche sung by Maria Ewing. Perhaps because the end of her career was fraught with all manner of vocal problems and her affected weird behavior, I’d forgotten what a truly sensational artist she was in the early part of her career. The voice . . . the voice is simply gorgeous, rich, creamy, sensuous (uh oh there go those no-no Ira Siff words) here, at times (particularly in the upper middle range), resembles a singer who’d achieve fame just a bit later: Renee Fleming. Some took Ewing to task for changing her Blanche from the shy, terrified, almost blinkered heroine she introduced to the Met a decade earlier, yet I found her interpretation moving between a sort of an anger borne of self-hatred coupled with fear, to make her final resolve in the march to the guillotine even more powerful than I had the first time.
Ewing seems to have made this interpretative choice based on the scene where Mother Marie finds her living as a servant in her former family home as Blanche reveals “All the world despises a coward, so I deserve to be ridiculed and despised. I have felt this way since I was a child. There was only one who could keep me from these thoughts; my father. He is dead. He died on the guillotine less than a week ago.” Similarly in the earlier scene between Blanche and her final visit with her brother – the wavering between anger, strength and crushing fear was overwhelming.
While the rest of the performances held few surprises, they have long been scorched or permanently seared into my memory and little commentary is necessary except to say, each performer was at the top of their game, notably Jessye Norman, Florence Quivar, and Betsy Norden. Of course, Regine Crespin as the First Prioress, whose tortured death is horrific not for its brutality, but for the honesty of the portrayal of a strong woman who, at the last reveals her doubts of a life-long faith dying, racked with pain and gripped by fear.
John Dexter’s simple, sparse production – taking place on a stage filling white cross remains one of the most powerful productions the Met has mounted, the opening and closing images of which, once seen can never be forgotten. The fluidity of movement between the scenes of each act is, in the very best sense, cinematic; no pauses, no curtain movement, a seamless unity binding music and drama into a single entity, the type of which is too rarely seen or heard.
The final scene – with Poulenc’s score at the March to the Scaffold leading to the execution of the Carmelite sisters remains one of the most chilling moments in all of opera. Yet again, the visual and musical components are so wedded into a terrifying whole that it is difficult if not impossible to not be moved to tears as it unfolds. Kudos, too to Maestro Manuel Rosenthal who leads a stirring performance, perfectly balanced and revealing a truly Grand Opera.
Special credit goes to Brian Large for his inspired direction for television and should serve as a model of how to get things perfect. The ratio between close-ups, full and partial stage shots and reaction shots are highlighted by a marvelous use of overlaps and dissolves that come as close to perfection as this art form will allow.
I’ll again echo the sentiment that I find no sensible argument that this performance (from a single performance) has never been – and likely will never be – issued for commercial release. It is truly the Met at its finest.