John Dexter’s 42-year old production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites (here sung in French) on David Reppa’s spare sets has lost none of its considerable power. The startling opening image – thirteen nuns lying prostrate in the shape of a cross on an empty, raked stage – elicited an audible intake of breath when the production was new, and the reaction remains in the Met’s current revival of only three performances. Based on a dreadful moment in history within a terrifying period – the French Revolution – when a convent full of nuns has been instructed to either renounce their vows or go to the guillotine, the opera follows the nuns as individuals and as a sisterhood, with some penetrating looks at the aristocracy caught up in the bloodshed as well. Our central focus is Sister Blanche who is both attracted by – and terrified of – martyrdom. When the Revolution takes hold, she runs from the convent back to her now-ruined aristocratic home only to return at the moment of the group beheading. The tonal “dialogues” are pierced by frequent, cruel slashing chords; the sense of unrest and danger is always near.

Carmélites at The Met
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

Poulenc’s musical language is unique. Utterly distilled to mirror the text, we hear the flavors of neo-classicism, impressionism and French sacred choral music, but the mixture is like no other composer’s. We often get the impression that we are listening in on something very private, but we cannot turn away, so potent are the sounds and situations. The music never bullies, but we feel it in our gut.

Erin Morley (Constance) and Isabel Leonard (Blanche de la Force)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

As she was in the revival six years ago, Isobel Leonard takes the role of Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ. Her bright mezzo was ideal for Marnie and not at all for Mélisande earlier in the season and she melted into the scenery in the latter opera. Her Blanche was remarkable in the revival several years ago; here she was oddly bland in the opera’s first half but riveting in the second; perhaps she was too occupied playing Blanche’s uncertainty and fear. By the end, she took over the role. Her dialogues with the chirpy but touching Sister Constance were fraught with both tension and calm and Erin Morley's clear and sparkling soprano was just right. Mme de Croissy, the Old Prioress whom we first meet when she is gravely ill and whose hideous, painful death we witness, was inhabited by the great singing actress, Karita Mattila, whose visits to the Met have become all too rare. The audience's stunned silence at her death scene spoke volumes. Karen Cargill used her rich, dark mezzo with dignity as Mother Marie and as the somewhat rigid new prioress, Mme Lidoine, Adrianne Pieczonka was a noble leader as she and the other nuns went to their deaths.

Paul Corona (Javelinot), Karita Mattila (Mme de Croissy) and Karin Cargill (Mère Marie)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

The men have little to do in this opera, but Jean-François Lapointe as Blanche's aristocratic father was powerful as he told the story of Blanche's mother being scared by the mob, and David Portillo as her brother, the Chevalier, eventually at his wit's end, was very effective.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads an inexorable performance, perfectly in keeping with the stark, brilliant direction and production. The brass choirs – angry fanfares à la Stravinsky – pierced, the woodwinds guided us, the percussion startled. His feel for the conversational subtleties and not-so-subtle outbursts turn this performance into one that leaves onlookers breathless. The piety and the anguish were deeply felt. As each nun goes to her death, the "thwap" of the guillotine sounds; the effect is visceral. An unforgettable evening.