Faith and sacrifice don’t save “Carmalites”

“The Dialogues of the Carmelites” was long (three hours) and, dare I say, as boring as church. This opera is based on historical events that took place in France during the revolution and a group of nuns who were forced to leave their convent and everything they cherished to live as civilians.

However, in the face of authority, one nun said something to the effect of “you can strip a soldier of his uniform but he will continue to serve his master.”

Well, the nuns did continue to serve God and they all decided to take a pact of martyrdom. In the end they were killed in a public execution by guillotine. (Sorry if I gave away the ending but it is a true story.) I missed this part, I really couldn’t take anymore and had to duck out about a half an hour before the end. I take full responsibility for this action, but I feel it fair to say that several people in seats around me didn’t return after intermission and I was not the only one to leave during the second act.

I realize that this is an amazing story of faith and sacrifice. That this is a story about history and religion, but the vehicle, (the opera) was very dry. I sat through most of it and I tried to get involved with the characters which was very difficult because they were all dressed the same, except for the character of Blanche played by Ann Panagulias.

Blanche was a young woman full of fear and so chose to join the convent where she was still afraid of the world. But her character was not complex enough to hold my attention for three hours. I drifted off into the scenery, which was sparse and gave the set an uncomfortable overtone.

The stage sat at an awkward angle, which seemed to jet out towards the audience at too steep a slant. In the opening act Blanche’s father sat in his wheelchair and when he began to move across the stage I thought for sure that he was going to go crashing down into the orchestra pit. It was very tense and distracted my attention from the performance.

Every scene was basically the same with the slopped stage and projected simplified landscape paintings with squares and rectangles in them. They did nothing for the set and I was not impressed. I couldn’t figure out what the squares and rectangles were there for, if they were not representing something then they wouldn’t be there stuck in the background.

I was further disappointed to see a seam, as if the slide was taken out of a book. My friend suggested that perhaps this was intentional to represent the Bible. I really hope so but I doubt it. The other constant stage element was a huge, heavy, wooden cross that hung at precarious sometimes-ominous angles at center stage. The lighting was very dramatic, hot red, cold blue and blinding white the colors of the French flag burned down in the faces of the persecuted faithful.

I did enjoy the scene where the heavy black curtain was raised only half way to create a long rectangular view of the nuns all lined up across the stage bathed in a deep blue light. However, overall the sets were not visually appealing.

It is very difficult to read an opera. I tried but the words that I was reading on the overhead monitor and the tonation of the voices on stage didn’t seem to match up a good deal of the time. My friend and I agreed that the woman who played the Old Prioress, Rosalind Elias, kept singing out of range and concluded that she wasn’t very good. We soon learned however, that this can’t be the case. It turns out the she has played leading roles at opera companies around the world as well as recorded with the New York and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras.

So I don’t know much about opera, yes this is true. Me covering this performance is kind of like an opera critic covering a Jackson Pollock retrospective at the New York MOMA. So I digress, but perhaps I would have enjoyed the screenplay more and gotten more out of it. Alas, The “Dialogues of the Carmelites” last performance at the Keller Auditorium was on March 31. So if you are interested in learning more about this devout group of 18th-century nuns I suggest that you read a book or go rent the movie or check out “The Best of Broadway” series for more shows. Their upcoming season is a little more wild with such shows as “Saturday Night Fever” and “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”