By Patrick B. McGuigan
“Dialogues of the Carmelites” came to the Kirkpatrick Auditorium stage at Oklahoma City University last weekend as a virtual force of nature.
Set in the early stages of the French Revolution, it follows the personal story of the troubled daughter of privilege, Blanche de la Force, performed Friday by Erin Kenneavy, who decides to become a sister in the Carmelite Order of nuns. As her father, the Marquis, rendered skillfully by Andrew Luzania, frets over her future, Blanche embraces life as a Bride of Christ, pledged to a perpetual life of prayer and service to Jesus and His Mother.
Her brother “the chevallier” (Daniel Price) is dismayed that his anxiety-ridden sibling would go to a nunnery, leaving him and the Marquis to fret over her mental state.
Drawn to the passionate leadership of the Mother Superior (Emily Atkinson), Sister Blanche embraces the austerity of cloistered life. Her daily routine is soon linked to the vivacious – one could even say a “drama queen” – Sister Constance (Meghan Wagner), her fellow novice.
Alas, the world intrudes, horribly, into the austere serenity of Carmelite life, making a prophetess of the Mother Superior. She warns Blanche a woman does not enter the cloister to escape life, but to embrace it. These two women and others in this compelling tale are what they seem – heroic and faithful, tender of heart but stern in resolution as events ultimately require.
Mother Marie (Paige Grilliot) expects to become prioress upon the death of Mother Superior, but instead Madame Lidoine (Marlen Nahhas) is chosen. There is tension but not hatred between the two, beautifully conveyed in their sung dialogues.
There are many engaging duets in this opera from Francis Poulenc – who always intended the story to be conveyed in the native tongue of every nation where it was performed. The most lovely songs, however, are untranslated Latin hymns for the ensemble, including Ave Maria (Hail Mary) and a closing song of praise to the Queen of Heaven.
Karen Coe Miller, stage director, uses the performance area well with the extensive cast, and Conductor Matthew Mailman brings the opera to lush and lovely life. Cheers to the Wanda L. Bass School of Music and the Opera/Music Theater Company at OCU for every aspect of this presentation.
In the pressure-cooker atmosphere of rising tyranny forged in the name of liberty, the brave sisters make a pledge of martyrdom for the faith, one Lidoine initially opposes but ultimately accepts.
As the story progresses and life for the holy sisters grows more frenzied, Blanche’s courage falters for a time. But in the end, Blanche is reunited with her friend Constance. The nuns transcend – as a group and individually – time and place, singing Salve Regina (Hail, to the Queen) as they meet their destiny.
It’s an opera, not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is sung in English with streaming dialogue on an overhead screen. The narrative is drawn from a true story about women executed because madmen and mad women possessed of Revolutionary fervor would not let them be who they were. That’s a situation that still resonates.
In OCU’s presentation, “Dialogues of the Carmelites” portrays people of prayer. It is story of brave but seemingly ordinary women who, drawn into a fateful whirlwind of social and moral collapse, become defiantly extraordinary.
In the lovely face of every “nun” supporting cast member is written the anguish and terror of a reign of evil that for a long season devastated a great nation.
Like Andy Garcia’s film, “For Greater Glory” about the repression of Catholic Christianity in Mexico 90 years ago, this is a timeless tale that bears repeating.