Never a city to shy away from seasonal programming, this Easter Vienna is offering productions of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, Gounod’s Faust, and Wagner’s Parsifal. The latter two, at the Staatsoper, are familiar, but audiences should run to see the Theater an der Wien’s enthralling revival of Poulenc’s relatively rarely-produced masterwork.

© Armin Bardel
© Armin Bardel

Dialogues des Carmélites is based on the historical Compiègne order of Carmelite nuns, who went to the French Revolution’s guillotine rather than renounce their faith. The opera’s libretto began its life as a screenplay, and has the dense “sung play” quality of many twentieth-century operas. Its fine literary quality gives the characters more personal detail and psychological depth than most operas. Despite Poulenc’s intense personal identification with the nuns, his score is never sentimental or excessive. The textures are spare, the vocal lines lyrical but recitative-like (the composer cited Musorgsky and Monteverdi as influences). Several austerely contrapuntal sacred music settings are also included. The comprehensibility of the text is prioritized, and indeed Poulenc specified that the opera should be sung in the native language of the audience. (This dictate is not always followed today, and the Theater an der Wien’s production is in the original French with surtitles rather than sung in German.)

The plot is centered on Blanche de la Force, an earnest young woman of the aristocracy who escapes the violence of revolutionary Paris by entering the convent. There, she struggles with issues of faith in the company of the other nuns. Soon enough, the revolutionaries advance, the convent is no longer a haven, and the nuns contemplate martyrdom. Chaos and violence descend, and in the haunting finale the nuns sing the “Salve Regina” as they fall one by one to the irregular metallic crashes of the guillotine. Finally only Blanche remains, singing alone, wreathed in white light, until she too falls.

Robert Carsen’s straightforward and effective production is not new (it can be seen on a 2004 DVD from La Scala conducted, amazingly enough, by Riccardo Muti), but has been meticulously revived (Didier Kersten is credited with “scenic rehearsal”). The backdrop is a plain box of looming gray walls that rise and fall in an ominous foreshadowing of the opera’s finale. The use of light and dramatic shadows replace any large scenic effects. In the first scene, the brightly-costumed aristocrats of Blanche’s family are surrounded by silent, black-cloaked crowds of the Third Estate, a visualization of the Revolution’s threat. Fortunately, most of the rest of the production is more subtle. Except for a few other moments of this kind of symbolic blocking, and the effective stylized choreography of prayer in the final scene, the production is realistic.

The performance’s real strength was the level of detail and psychological subtlety in the acting, speaking to both good performances and direction. Despite the opera’s occasional wordiness of the text and the potential confusion of so many nearly-identical nuns on stage together, the characters are immediate, their interactions convincing, and the drama totally involving. Blanche’s relationship with her father, Mère Marie’s intense devotion, young Sister Constance’s energy, all are vivid and natural.

If only the musical side of things had consistently lived up to the production’s sensitivity. The ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien experienced some coordination issues, and Bertrand de Billy’s conducting was flat-footed and inattentive to the pull of the text, despite a good deal of fine singing.

Patricia Petibon has previously appeared in this production as Sister Constance, but has graduated to the larger role of Blanche. It sits a little low for her bright soprano and her tone was sometimes brittle, but her natural acting and powerful stage presence can make a great deal out of a single gesture or glance, and her passionate terror was convincing.

Deborah Polaski’s voice remains powerful and her dramatic command in the Old Prioress’s harrowing Act One death scene (one of the most realistic and intense depictions of death in the operatic repertoire) absolute. Michelle Breedt gave a fascinatingly three-dimensional portrayal as Mère Marie and sang with a dark mezzo. The character can seem severe, but Breedt gave her a depth and self-doubt that made her intensely sympathetic. Hendrickje van Kerckhove was charming if occasionally shrill as the endlessly cheerful Constance. Heidi Brunner struggled with high notes as new prioress Madame Lidione, but acted well. The small supporting parts of the other nuns and small number of men were well taken, particularly Yann Beuron’s ardent Chevalier de la Force. As always, the singing of the Arnold-Schoenberg Chor was a highlight.

The intimate setting of the Theater an der Wien and this excellent ensemble is a wonderful combination for this subtle, mysteriously underperformed opera.