Sunday, March 8, 2015

Devastating Dialogues: Portland Does Poulenc Proud

(Photo taken from the PSO Facebook page)
For (evidently) the first time in its history, the Portland Symphony gave a staged performance of a complete opera. One would assume a small-town orchestra's first opera would be a popular choice, a crowd pleaser, I mean, why take a chance, right? Wrong. This small town orchestra has, under the guidance of Robert Moody, been taking more daring chances each season, featuring works of Berg, Shostakovich, John Adams, Bartok, Hindemith and other "prickly" 20th and 21st century composers, so Poulenc it was.

Dialogues of the Carmelites (from 1956) must surely be one of the most successful operas of the 2nd half of the 20th century, and yet still some find it too "modern," but we can and must thank Maestro Moody for bringing these singing nuns to Portland.

Billed as "semi-staged," the orchestra occupied the stage proper while an "actors' stage" was projected over the orchestra pit. With no actual "set" (there were the necessary props i.e., candles, coffin, benches, flowers) there was period costumes which enhanced the historical aspects of the drama. No set meant focus fell entirely on the characters and their interactions, or "dialogues," if you will, heightening intensity and enhancing Poulenc's propulsive scoring increasingly with each successive scene.

As soon as our Blanche, Sarah Jane McMahon began singing my first thought was "Denise Duval" - Paris' first Blanche and favorite of the composer. The voice isn't the same, but possessing a similar timbre and brightness that, while not a large sound, sliced easily through Poulenc's orchestration with no difficulty being heard. McMahon was an affecting Blanche, giddy and almost coltish in her first scenes, becoming more desperate then showing Blanche's resolve and peace with her fate.

Mary Gayle Green's Madame de Croissy was powerful, stern, but the affection for her daughters beautifully underplayed, making her tortured death exactly as it must be: unsettling and tragic.

Diana Yodis was an unusually youthful Mother Marie which added a dimension to this "by-the-book" nun which I found unique and special.

Catherine Zachary was precisely what is needed in Constance . . . and then some, both bright of voice and sparkling of personality Constance's chattering about death and desire sometimes makes her seem lame-brained Zachary's approach made her fearless, those mutterings sounding more like a discussion of philosophies. Very nice.

As Madame Lidoine, Jill Gardner was gently commanding, the voice beautiful and sounding enormous, which is always a treat to hear. Her final scenes infinitely touching, and watching her bless her daughters before their brutal execution most compelling.

The Carmelite sisters interacted with each other with a sincerity that made one believe this was truly a community who relied upon each other and whose faith, even when put to the ultimate test, was unshakeable. For the Ave Maria and the Ave Verum Corpus, Poulenc gives them music of such ineffable beauty and otherworldly harmonies, the effect our sisters here making them sound as if they had already transcended the human veil.

Troy Cook's Marquis de la Force proved to be one of those voices one wished Poulenc had written more music for. As his son, Daniel Stein struggled at times to be heard (particularly in the beginning) and I think this has more to do with the tenor timbre blending into Poulenc's orchestration at certain points. His higher lying music in the big scene with Blanche there were no such problems, the scene proving a highlight for both he and McMahon.

Smaller roles were mostly excellent (one or two being competent) but uncredited. I for one, would certainly like to know the name of the Gaoler - his two scenes were brilliantly delivered, and I don't think I'm alone in thinking so.

Carey Kugler was the stage director who, with his remarkable cast, was able pull us back in time to a very specific world, and for three hours keeping us there, fascinated, horrified and moved to tears. One got to know these sisters, saw their deep affection for each other and watch that world be torn asunder. The staging of the finale was one of the most powerful I can recall. Each nun walked the entire stage width past a pair of guards, then a shadow from the wings blocked out light each time the guillotine's blade sliced through, sounding as though coming from the stage left wing, but apparently from high end onstage speakers. This was made more chilling as, and I can't recall hearing this before, the machine's blade sliding back "up" after it had dispatched its victim. After that last "puff of cloud" chord Poulenc gives as benediction, the house sat in darkness and complete silence for what seemed like minutes.

Moody's handling of the score revealed a deep love and respect for it. (In a post-performance Q&A, I was struck by the fact that, like me, he was introduced to Carmelites as a teenager. That experience affected me for life, and the same seems to hold true the Maestro.) I couldn't help but wish for a longer run ("one night only") to tighten up some of the minor blemishes (hello horns?) and a couple of the entrances following Poulenc's pauses sounded unsure, but these are minor quibbles as, overall, the playing was superb, providing just the right emotional quality Poulenc instilled in his score: overwhelming.

As many times as I've seen and heard this opera, it has never lost its hold on me. To be able to walk from home and experience it today . . . well, it doesn't get much better.

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