Now among the longest-serving productions in the Metropolitan Opera’s repertory, John Dexter’s staging of Dialogues des Carmélites remains a triumph of simple, effective storytelling. The late director’s minimalist aesthetic ideally suits Poulenc’s intimate saga of liberty that turns to tyranny, as a cloister of heroic nuns are scapegoated and executed in the feverish years following the French Revolution. Seen at the season premiere on 15th January, the iconic images that define the mise-en-scène – David Reppa’s steeply raked, wooden-cross set; Gil Wechsler’s hauntingly hazy lighting; and the sisters’ final procession to the guillotine – are as evocative as ever.

Dialogues des Carmélites
© Marty Sohl | Met Opera

The current revival, helmed by Sarah Ina Meyers, features several notable singers making role debuts. Lack of familiarity and first-night nerves may have accounted for Ailyn Pérez’s curiously wan take on Blanche de la Force. The American soprano aced her character’s febrile nature in the opera’s early scenes, but she failed to chart the journey Blanche takes from timid “little rabbit” to proud martyr. Her singing lacked a lushness of tone, although she employed stunning morbidezza in Blanche’s confrontational scene with her brother, the Chevalier de la Force (Piotr Buszewski, in an appealing house debut). Placement in the back of the throat occasionally obscured proper French accents on certain words.

Alice Coote (Madame de Croissy) and Jamie Barton (Mère Marie)
© Marty Sohl | Met Opera

By contrast, Alice Coote made a ferocious first impression as Madame de Croissy, the old prioress whose agonizing death presages the horrors visited upon the convent. Haughty and dismissive in her initial audience with Blanche, Coote’s Mother Superior touchingly softened at the recognition of the young girl’s misguided but sincere convictions. Although still vocally refulgent, she brought a chilling vulnerability to her character’s painful demise, underscoring the terror that accompanies a loss of faith in your darkest hour.

Christine Goerke (Madame Lidoine)
© Marty Sohl | Met Opera

The galvanic apostasy portrayed by Coote contrasted nicely the steadiness of Christine Goerke’s Madame Lidoine. The soprano, who first essayed this role at the Met in 2003, presented a warm maternal figure well suited to the crisis she faces. Goerke’s large, amber-hued voice needed most of her first scene to warm up, but by the opera’s end, when she confidently led her daughters toward their fate, she was on top form.

Sabine Devieilhe (Sœur Constance) and Ailyn Pérez (Blanche)
© Marty Sohl | Met Opera

In an astonishing house debut, bright-voiced soprano Sabine Devieilhe highlighted the true empathy beneath Sœur Constance’s fluttering exterior. Jamie Barton embodied Mère Marie’s fervently imprudent desire for martyrdom as a form of earthly glory, rather than a sacrifice given to God. Laurent Naouri was a blustery Marquis de la Force. Comprimario parts showcased rising Met talents (Cierra Byrd’s tart Sœur Mathilde) and stalwart singers (Tony Stevenson’s kindhearted Chaplain) in equal measures.

Bertrand de Billy wrangled a difficult score in the pit, ratcheting up rubato to build dramatic tension in the opera’s first scene and bringing the opera to a hushed but disquieting close at the end. In between, he proved unfailingly generous to the singers, in a work where attention to textual detail really matters. No production or performance is perfect, but any opportunity to spend time with a living landmark of the Met’s history is reason to rejoice.