If ever an opera passes the Bechdel test of gender bias whereby, in a work of fiction, two women talk to each other about something other than a man, Poulenc’s 1957 Dialogues of the Carmelites, most certainly does. Set amongst a community of women, the few men in the plot have to engage with them on their own terms, those of the strictest of Catholic female religious orders.

A company debut for Washington National Opera, directed correctly but blandly by Francesca Zambello, this performance left me underwhelmed. Part historical drama (the story based on the martyrdom of the Carmelites of Compiègne during the French terror), part philosophical investigation of faith and conscience (based on Gertrud Von le Fort’s novella The Last One at the Scaffold), and part study in neurosis overcome (the play on which the libretto is based comes from the Jansenist-leaning George Bernanos), this opera presents no genial Sound of Music stereotype of singing nuns, but is as weighty and singular an oeuvre as might be imagined in the whole corpus.

Layla Claire played Blanche, a girl fearful to the point of neurosis, throwing off the protective cocoon of an aristocratic life, and then of the Carmel that fails to protect her, and only finally going back to face martyrdom with her sisters. Claire’s voice was, at times, like a waterfall tumbling, plentifully, from on high, but there was a lack of genuinely-felt tension in her acting and singing – with too much clasping of hands and stretching of arms. She looked and sounded like somebody pretending to be fearful but not like somebody who genuinely was so. This is a character who must show a transition from ‘bunny rabbit’ to ‘lamb of sacrifice’, a massive stage challenge. The crucial dramatic lynchpin which ends Act II – her accidental breakage of the statue of the Infant Christ – made the audience laugh instead of gasp.

The production had its moments of lyrical beauty and intensity: the orchestra captured the score’s latent tension and the percussive caesura that punctuate the opera right up until the repeated fall of the guillotine in the finale were crisply executed. Ashley Emerson, sweet if small voice clear as a bell, provided wit in her portrayal of Blanche’s buoyant fellow-postulant and unlikely friend Constance, foretelling her blithely that they will die together. Alan Held was convincing as aristocratic paterfamilias, voice all patriarchal velvety mellowness, mystified by a daughter he has infantilised. Dolora Zajick, the prioress, died on stage quite magnificently, the ‘mean death’ that Blanche deserved, voice contorted in an agony of fear. The most moving scenes were two Latin choruses, which had a restrained sacral elegance and a precision of enunciation, pleasing to both ear and eye.

Except for some luminous moments, however, the evening required more voice, more orchestral lushness, more neuroticism, more passionate religious sensibility. The singers rarely pushed the orchestra – itself a symbol of the forces of the revolution – down, and the orchestra, in turn, only half-heartedly overwhelmed them. But the point was that both should wrestle with each other for dominance – the singers’ relationship with the orchestra here is a kind of metaphor for the plot’s exploration of the personal drama of individual and community enmeshed in a wider context. The pressure from both sides should feel palpable to any audience, however theologically or historically illiterate.

The visuals, reflecting at once the stripped-down simplicity of Carmel, an ancien régime denuded, and the Calvary of the gospels, were appropriate. There was plenty of rote religiosity; perfunctory crossings, kneelings, prostrations, an oversize Cross that the nuns clung to. If ever a director should avoid the rote, it is here: it does no justice to the theological complexity of the libretto and the women it portrays.

The finale, demanding sacred solemnity, was abrupt, hurried and awkwardly choreographed. Each sister made an individual ‘look-at-me’ gesture ascending the scaffold that detracted from the singing of the Salva Regina – women collectively praying to the Woman, each voice dropping out, poignantly, in turn. Blanche’s return to the fold was greeted with a cheery smile from the last remaining witness, her friend Constance. No shivering peroration, no shimmering radiance, no transcendence. The still soft voice of calm of the orchestral coda was lost amidst stage busy-ness of departing sans-culottes with pikes. This is an opera where it is preferable to get it real rather than merely ‘right’. One had the uneasy sense that not merely the character of Blanche was in need of redemption.