The story relates a version of an actual event — the 1794 martyrdom of the Carmelite nuns of Compiègne at the end of France's revolutionary Reign of Terror — and remains one of the most popular and effective 20th century operas.
The University of Colorado's Eklund Opera Program stages "Carmelites" next weekend as its major spring production. It was previously seen at CU in 2003.
Eklund program director Leigh Holman says the work can be a hard sell because of its setting inside a convent.
"On the surface, it's an opera about a bunch of nuns," Holman said. "That may not seem too interesting at first, but the music is gorgeous and the story is powerful."
Music director Nicholas Carthy concurred, saying that "nobody can remain unmoved at the end."
Neither Holman nor Carthy was involved with the 2003 production, but its sets, which Holman describes as "powerfully austere," are being used again.
The story is told from the viewpoint of Blanche de la Force, a novice who finds that the convent is no refuge from the terror going on outside of it. Holman said that, at its heart, the story is about the realization there really is no hiding from one's fears.
The cast is mostly female, Blanche's father and brother being the only substantial male roles. Many roles are double cast, standard practice for CU's opera productions, but there will be only two performances at Macky Auditorium instead of the usual three. They take place on Friday night and the afternoon of Sunday, March 13.
Mezzo-soprano and CU alumna Sarah Barber, who has gone on to a successful professional career, appears as a guest performer in both casts as the old prioress, a role Carthy suggested could not really be played by a young student.
"Her death at the end of the first act is an extraordinarily powerful scene," Carthy said, "and is a metaphor for the change that is happening."
Holman concurred, saying "it's worth coming just to see that scene. The way Sarah plays the role will knock you out of your seat."
With such a distinguished former student returning to play that role, it is highly fitting that soprano Meagan Mahlberg, who was recently appointed as the CU College of Music's alumni coordinator, plays her replacement, the new prioress, in one of the casts. Mahlberg has been one of the program's most prominent stars in recent years.
While gripping emotional drama, lush orchestration and pleasing tonal language will be in abundant supply, one thing audiences should not expect is a series of show-stopping solo numbers.
"It's 'Dialogues of the Carmelites,' not 'Arias of the Carmelites,' " Holman quipped.
Much of the music is written in a flowing recitative style. Here, Poulenc was following Claude Debussy, whose 1902 opera "Pelléas et Melisande" similarly eschews such set pieces.
"It's really an opportunity for singers to show off their acting skills," Holman said. "You have to understand every word and phrase that you are singing."
But this does not diminish the ravishing score. Carthy said that Poulenc's distinction between regular conversation and religious ceremony is fascinating.
"The dialogue parts are in the style of 'Pelléas et Melisande,' but then the scenes of religious ceremony become very different," he said.
Poulenc, a devout Catholic, wrote a substantial body of sacred choral music, and this style comes through in those portions of the opera.
And that is the style heard in the climactic execution scene, during which the nuns sing liturgical music.
"That execution scene really is a religious ceremony," Carthy said.
Holman said she specifically wanted to avoid making any sort of political statement about the Catholic Church, saying, "it's really not about that."
The singing language was a point of debate. Poulenc was adamant that in order for the universality of the story to be placed in relief, all performances should be sung in the language of the audience. Opera companies have largely followed this directive. But in the age of projected titles, performances in the original French have become more common, for example, at the Metropolitan Opera.
For the benefit of its students, the CU program has favored original languages — Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel," another opera typically done in English, was performed in the original German in 2014 — and the original announcement of the CU Presents season last April indicated that "Dialogues" would be sung in French. But, ultimately, it was decided to follow Poulenc's directive, and a slightly updated English translation will be used. Because of the importance of the text and the large orchestration, titles still will be projected.
Carthy has not reduced Poulenc's orchestration, although it pushes Macky's small pit to the limits. The piano, celesta and harp are placed in an enclave outside of the pit.
Calling it Poulenc's "belated war opera" (the composer fared well during the Second World War and had some difficulty coming to terms with that), Carthy said it is "a great expression of the horror of war and the decisions one makes."
Information at cupresents.org
This article originally appeared in the Boulder Daily Camera. Read the article.