Review: A New Generation Takes Up ‘Dialogues des Carmélites’

It’s still too soon to size up Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s vision for the Metropolitan Opera as its music director. But his main responsibility is to preside over as many performances as possible and maintain the highest artistic standards throughout the company. Though he has led only three productions this season, his first in the role, he has proved himself exceptionally suited to the challenge in each.

In December, he led an elegant yet impassioned account of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” In January, he drew a dark and sensual performance of Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” from an inspired orchestra and cast. And on Friday he conducted a glowing, grippingly volatile performance of Poulenc’s wrenching “Dialogues des Carmélites.”

[Mr. Nézet-Séguin discusses his favorite page from the “Dialogues” score.]

The opera tells the story of a Carmelite convent whose nuns are condemned to death during the French Revolution. In this revival of John Dexter’s powerfully spare and dramatically dead-on 1977 production, Mr. Nézet-Séguin was consistently attentive to refinements of the music and the careful way Poulenc sets words so that vocal lines seem almost conversational, those “quintessentially French” qualities, as he said in a recent interview with The New York Times.

Yet, seizing on every piercing chord and astringent harmony, he also brought out boldly the contemporary elements of Poulenc’s musical language, which subtly draws from diverse styles including modal French sacred music, Impressionist colorings and Neo-Classical fanfares and chorales, even sly hints of salon room insouciance during scenes in which aristocrats lament their political predicament.

The opera begins in the library of the Marquis de la Force (the sturdy baritone Jean-François Lapointe, in his Met debut), who is deeply worried about his fearful daughter, Blanche, here the resplendent mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, who achingly conveys the fraught and shifting emotions of this complex character. Blanche’s brother, the Chevalier de la Force (the sweet-voiced tenor David Portillo in an endearing performance), shares his father’s concerns about Blanche. As they talk, revolution is fomenting right outside their home. Mr. Nézet-Séguin emphasized every slashing chord and tumultuous outburst during this scene. I’ve never heard it performed with such ferocity.

In a poignant scene, Blanche asks her father’s permission to enter the Carmelite convent. But first Blanche must endure an interview with Madame de Croissy, the convent’s older and ailing prioress, here the great soprano Karita Mattila. The prioress warns Blanche that the convent is not a refuge from fear, or life, or anything, but a house of devotion. But Ms. Mattila’s steely prioress can’t help succumbing to Blanche’s touching combination of fragility and determination, as suggested by Ms. Leonard.

Ms. Mattila was harrowing during the prioress’s death scene. Facing the end, writhing in pain and despair, she pleads for relief and doubts God’s presence. Ms. Mattila made her character at once terrifying and a sad wreck of a woman.

As written by Poulenc, these sisters come together as a religious community in ensemble scenes of prayer, deliberation and crisis. Yet he gives each of them a distinct character; under Mr. Nézet-Séguin (and the revival stage director, David Kneuss), these impressive singers found their individual dramatic voices, especially the beguiling, pure-toned soprano Erin Morley as the chatterbox Constance; the mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill as the benevolent Mother Marie, who longs for martyrdom with her “daughters” but is denied it; and the soprano Adrianne Pieczonka as Madame Lidoine, the new prioress, who arrives with a slightly sanctimonious air, only to find inner strength and heroism.

The final scene, in which the nuns, one by one, walk to the guillotine singing Poulenc’s forlornly beautiful setting of the Salve Regina, felt more horrific than ever. And moving — perhaps because artists of a new generation have taken over this great work, this classic production and, in a way, the Met, starting with Mr. Nézet-Séguin.

Dialogues des Carmélites
Through May 11 at the Metropolitan Opera; metopera.org.

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