San Francisco Opera’s final 1963 Saturday night series performance was a revival of the Opera’s 1957 production of Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites”, whose American premiere took place in San Francisco only eight months after its world premiere at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala. German conductor Leopold Ludwig assumed musical responsibility for the revival.
Prior to this work, the most recent opera that I had seen performed in my eight years of attending San Francisco Opera productions was Berg’s “Wozzeck”, which dates from 1922. The San Francisco Opera, in a departure from tradition, not only committed to a full-scale production of a new work, but also to a revival of that production for a subsequent season.
[Below: the Harry Horner sets for “Dialogues of the Carmelites”; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Venora, the French Repertory and “Susannah”
The lead character is Blanche de la Force, who was sung by Lee Venora, a Connecticut soprano who had established herself at the New York City Opera and in San Francisco Opera’s Spring Opera Theater (which in the 1960s performed on the War Memorial Opera House Main Stage).
Whether or not soprano Birgit Nilsson was correct in identifying the San Francisco Opera as a “German house” is arguable [see 50 Year Anniversaries: Vickers, Shuard, Resnik in “Die Walkuere” – San Francisco Opera, October 10, 1963], but, in the early 1960s, one would not characterize the main Fall season of San Francisco Opera as a “French house”.
Although this was my 32nd opera (and, with repeats, my 38th San Francisco Opera performance), it was only the third opera by a French composer I had seen presented by the main company (counting my first “Faust” on the company’s tour to San Diego and Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila” revived a few weeks earlier for James McCracken). Ironically (though I believe appropriately for the San Francisco audience) “Dialogues” was performed in English.
Although the French repertory was scarce during the main Fall seasons of the San Francisco Opera from 1960 to 1963, it was not absent from the War Memorial.
During those years, for the company’s Spring Opera Theater, Venora (paired with tenor Richard Verreau) sang three of the great French roles from the second half of the 19th century – Leila in Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers”, Juliette in Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” and the title role of Massenet’s “Manon”.
Venora holds a particular distinction in San Francisco Opera history. She sang the title role in the only two performances to date of Carlisle Floyd’s opera “Susannah”, with Richard Cassilly as Sam Polk and Norman Treigle as Olin Blitch.
Those 1964 Spring Opera Theater performances occurred on the War Memorial Opera House stage, with Floyd as stage director. Through the San Francisco Opera’s 2013 season, “Susannah” has never been performed by the main company (although I expect its addition to San Francisco Opera’s main performing repertory soon.)
[Below: Connecticut soprano Lee Venora was Blanche de la Force; resized image of a publicity photograph.]
Blanche in Revolutionary Times
The essence of “Dialogues of the Carmelites” consists of Blanche’s interactions with her family, four of the nuns in the order, and ultimately, the murderous hordes of the French Revolution.
Daughter of the Marquis de la Force (sung by the excellent Australian baritone John Shaw) and sister of the Chevalier de la Force (sung by esteemed Utah tenor Glade Peterson), Blanche’s acceptance into the Carmelite Order at Compiègne occurs at a time of crisis in the noble family. Although her brother escapes the Revolutionary hordes, her father is guillotined.
Several Carmelite nuns are important to Blanche’s spiritual development. These include the Old Prioress, Madame de Croissy (played brilliantly by New York soprano Regina Resnik), whose agonizing death ends the first act.
[Below: Mezzo-soprano Regina Resnik; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Other important characters to Blanche are Mother Marie (sung by Sandra Warfield), the New Prioress, Madame Lidione (excellently sung by Swedish soprano Siw Ericsdotter) and the young novitiate, Sister Constance (sung with the vivaciousness expected of the role by Reri Grist).
Opera and the Role of the Church in Society
The opera’s libretto was written by the French Catholic conservative novelist George Bernanos and was translated into English for the San Francisco Opera performances by George Machlis.
Like Pizzetti’s mid-20th century “Murder in the Cathedral” it has a strong message in support of the Catholic church’s “eternal” role in preserving social order against the dangers of excesses of the state or of the undisciplined populace. [See Ferruccio Furlanetto, Ian Campbell Team Up Memorably for Pizzetti’s “Murder in the Cathedral” – San Diego Opera, March 30, 2013.]
Like Pizzetti’s work, the opera needs a live performance for its dramatic force to come through. The theatricality of the “Carmelites” transcends the theological underpinnings of Bernanos’ libretto.
Poulenc’s opera’s memorable conclusion, in which each of the members of the Carmelite order are guillotined one by one, is a coup de théâtre. The nuns sing a Salve Regina in unison, each individual voice stilled as the sound of the blade of the guillotine ends that character’s life.
The performance was an extraordinary mounting of the then six year old opera.