'Carmelites' packs emotional wallop

Robert Moody
Winston-Salem Journal

By Margaret Sandresky 

Sunday afternoon, in the third program of the 2014-15 Classics Series, Maestro Robert Moody and the Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra packed an emotional wallop in a concert performance of Francis Poulenc’s opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites. The singers were in costume, and Carey Kugler’s staging created a most effective ambience. The entrance of the chorus, trained by Dr Carole Ott, was equally dramatic.

Taken from a true story of the 12 Carmelite nuns who refused to renounce their faith and were guillotined during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, the opera requires eight soloists. Moody brought together a group of richly gifted singers, five emerging international guest artists, as well as the best in regional talent, many of whom hold university positions nearby as a base from which to work and a comfortable place to call home.

Fortunately, all the singers had big, opulent operatic voices, for the large orchestra was, of course, on stage instead of in the pit and tended to dominate the sound. Moody led them with skill through the thorny path of accompanying some of the free rhythms typical of Poulenc’s music. This is a beautiful score, and they all sounded marvelous together.

The leading role of Blanche de la Force, the only fictional character as an aristocrat who joins the sisters out of fear for her life, was sung by Sarah Jane McMahon, soprano, whose lovely, supple voice was ideal for the troubled young girl; and her sympathetic understanding of the role added to its dramatic tension.

Jill Gardner, who just two weeks ago sang the role of Cio Cio San with the Piedmont Opera’s Madame Butterfly, returned as Madame Lidoine (The New Prioress). She was especially effective in the closing prison scene where her voice seemed to soar with a golden burnish.

Mary Gayle Greene, mezzo soprano, who is on the voice faculty at the Broyhill Music Center of Appalachian State University, portrayed Madame de Croissy (The Old Prioress). The first act belonged to her gorgeous mezzo soprano voice.

Troy Cook, baritone, whose international career recently included a debut as Marcello in La Boheme with the State Opera in Hamburg, Germany, sang the role of the Marquis de la Force and Daniel Stein, tenor, who debuted with the Symphony here in the 2011-12 season, as soloist in the J.S. Bach, St. John Passion, and is on the voice faculty at Winthrop University, sang the role of Chevalier de la Force. Unfortunately their secondary roles did not let us hear enough of these magnificent voices.

The supporting male roles were sung by Christopher Gilliam, a commanding baritone and director of choral activities at Davidson College plus our own James Allbritten, director of the Piedmont Opera, who sang the role of the Father Confessor. Anita Rigsbee who portrayed Mother Jeanne, an experienced opera singer with a delightfully clear soprano voice is also professionally a local marketing director.

Though the plot of Dialogues mainly trundles along in the cloister, the ending is hair-raising and very moving. The audience seemed stunned for a moment and then erupted in applause.

Francois Poulenc composed the Dialogues toward the end of his life as the result of a commission by the publishing firm of Ricordi, and the final copy was completed in 1956. He was a devout Roman Catholic and because he had been a conscript in the French Army during both World Wars, and was living in Paris under the Nazi regime, he must have been sensitive to the results of tyranny and chose this play by Georges Bernardos, finding it “a moving and noble work”.