Metro Weekly

Dialogues of the Carmelites (Review)

The Washington National Opera’s Carmelites resonates with dark, complex themes

WNO's "Dialogues of the Carmelites" Photo by Scott Suchman
WNO’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” – Photo: Scott Suchman

Don’t let the austere title deter you — Poulenc’s mid-century Dialogues of the Carmelites is a perfect deep-winter tincture. As rich as a vintage port, the opera delivers a soft and melodic score that undulates with darker and complex themes.

For those who don’t already know the story, this is a work best enjoyed blind. It’s a pleasure to enjoy the gentle unfolding of the music and narrative, as much as one does the old (equally predictable) movies it somewhat evokes. Suffice to say it tells the true-life tale of the Carmelite nuns of the convent at Compiegne who were persecuted during the French Revolution. All does not end well, but acts of personal spiritual heroism ensue.

Of course, with the slow-burn of Poulenc’s stirring, searching score, the opera’s themes of fear, faith and the despair of the persecuted reach far beyond the filmic genre. Director Francesca Zambello captures this in her sensitive pacing and the melancholy of the staging and tableaus, even if the periodically marching peasants add less. The mood is given depth and contemporary reference in Hildegard Bechtler’s sublime sets of enormous, curved and moving walls and Mark McCullough’s brilliant mix of stark, gloomy and piquantly iridescent light.

This is a powerful cast. Creating a spectacularly grim and outraged Madame de Croissy, the ailing Prioress of the convent, Dolora Zajick sings with rafter-reaching scope in expressive, golden tone. Zajick’s acting is credible and affecting — as she suffers and doubts, her anger and pain is palpable. As the novice Blanche de la Force, the young noblewoman who takes the veil as a refuge from life, Layla Claire is convincing in her innocence and her fears. Her soprano is large and sweet, sometimes tending towards a slight emphasis on vibrato in the lower notes.

As Madame Lidoine, Leah Crocetto, singing with a poised, lush tone, offers a pleasing interpretation of the new Prioress who must take the helm under dire circumstances. As Sister Constance, Ashley Emerson is tragically but convincingly cheerful and Elizabeth Bishop is an understated but highly effective Mother Marie, who watches stoically as her beloved convent unravels. As Marquis de la Force, Blanche’s aristocratic father, Alan Held makes for an impressive bit part.

Admittedly, some may find Carmelites a slow burn. But taken with patience, it is a unique place to contemplate rich musical flavors and a story that is as tragically current as it is old.

To March 10. Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets are $25 to $300. Call 202-467-4600 or visit

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