Review: Opera Theatre's 'Dialogues of the Carmelites' Speaks Volumes

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

Based on the true story of the nuns of Campiègne during the French Revolution, “Dialogues of the Carmelites” tells the heart-wrenching tale of the persecution of 16 nuns and their dramatic martyrdom. The production by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is a richly-woven tapestry with stellar performances that captures the audience from its very beginning and draws them to its tragic, dramatic conclusion.

"Dialogues of the Carmelites" at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Photo by Ken Howard

“Dialogues of the Carmelites” at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Photo by Ken Howard

The pivotal character, Blanche de la Force, has a congenital—perhaps irrational—fear of life, but at the onset of Poulenc’s opera, she has good reason to be afraid. Fearing violence by the revolutionaries against the aristocracy (a group to which Blanche belongs), she joins the Carmelite order, but ultimately there is no sanctuary there either. She is told by fellow novice Sister Catherine of her premonition that she and Blanche will die together.

Ashley Emerson and Kelly Kaduce  "Dialogues of the Carmelites" Photo by Ken Howard

Ashley Emerson and Kelly Kaduce
“Dialogues of the Carmelites”
Photo by Ken Howard

The revolutionary regime is suppressing religious groups for suspicion of Aristocratic sympathies, and after seeming to take a vow of martyrdom with all the sisters, Blanche flees back to her home as the sisters are arrested. The situation at home is no better—her father has been guillotined and she is forced to act as servant to the revolutionaries. She finds her courage (with help from Sister Marie, who has found her and entreats her to return to the sisters) and rejoins the nuns at the Palace de la Revolution just in time to meet her fate along with the rest.

The story carries many themes, among them fear, faith, love, sacrifice, and brutality—a heavy load indeed, which the production handles solidly. Soprano Kelly Kaduce shines as Blanche, fully inhabiting the complex character who rises to face her deep fears with heroic bravery. Soprano Ashley Emerson is sublime as Sister Constance, whose joyfulness bubbles from her character and through her lilting soprano voice.

Christine Brewer  "Dialogues of the Carmelites" Photo by Ken Howard

Christine Brewer (Center)
“Dialogues of the Carmelites”
Photo by Ken Howard

Mezzo-soprano Daveda Karanas portrays Mother Marie in fine and emphatic fashion, while formidable soprano Christine Brewer performs the role of Madame Lidoine powerfully. The remainder of the cast is uniformly strong, with the remaining cast of nuns made up from the Gerdine Young Artist program, along with notable performances by Michael Porter as Blanche’s brother, and a priestly Kyle Erdos-Knapp.

Director Robin Guarino does a fine job, particularly with his bold choice for the final scene; as each of the nuns step up to the gallows in turn to meet their fate, the swoosh of the falling guillotine, followed by the loud report of it hitting home, is jarringly hair-tingling.

Meredith Arwady and Daveda Karanas  "Dialogues of the Carmelites" Photo by Ken Howard

Meredith Arwady and Daveda Karanas
“Dialogues of the Carmelites”
Photo by Ken Howard

Andrew Lieberman’s minimal set is striking in its beauty and craftsmanship. The bespoke pavilion structure serves as a variety of rooms and locations, and changes its attitude as it is rotated into different positions and inhabited by different characters. Members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra play with sweeping grandeur, led by conductor Ward Stare.

“Dialogues of the Carmelites” is a powerful ending to a brilliant season at OTSL, with Isaac Mizrahi’s “Magic Flute,” the shining production of “Elixir of Love,” and the stunning commissioned original, “27,” completing a season the St. Louis opera fans will not soon forget.

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