One of the most harrowing final scenes in all of opera is the ending of Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites," when the nuns condemned by the French Revolution walk one by one to the scaffold, singing a gradually thinning chorus punctuated by the slashing sounds of a guillotine.
So emotionally drained was the audience at Saturday afternoon's performance at the Metropolitan Opera that silence lingered in the house for several moments after the curtain fell. Only then did tumultuous applause erupt for the terrific performance that had just taken place.
But there is another death scene much earlier in the opera that is almost as wrenching. As the old prioress, Madame de Croissy, lies writhing on her deathbed, she cries out that God has forsaken her and the Carmelite order. As vividly portrayed by the veteran mezzo-soprano Felicity Palmer, the agonies and blasphemies of the prioress were painful and even shocking to witness.
Palmer was part of a uniformly strong cast the Met assembled for this revival of the classic John Dexter production, first seen in 1977 and absent from the stage for a decade.
As Blanche, mezzo Isabel Leonard sounded vibrant, even if she didn't always capture the vulnerability of the young postulant who struggles with her fear of death. Though the role was written for soprano, it is often taken by mezzos, and Leonard matched her rich lower register with secure high notes. Her voice contrasted nicely with the light soprano of Erin Morley, who was captivating as Sister Constance, the cheerful country girl who comforts Blanche.
Soprano Patricia Racette brought a sense of serenity and strength to the role of Madame Lidoine, who succeeds the old prioress and leads the nuns to their martyrdom. Mezzo Elizabeth Bishop sang with plush tone as Mother Marie, who is prevented by fate from joining her sisters in death. Baritone David Pittsinger etched a sympathetic cameo as Blanche's aristocratic father, and as her brother, tenor Paul Appleby sang with honeyed tone in the scene where he bids Blanche farewell — the closest thing this opera has to a love duet.
Conductor Louis Langree led the orchestra in a wonderfully idiomatic account of the haunting and lushly melodic score.
Dexter's staging looks barely touched by time and remains a marvel of simplicity, starting with the opening image of 13 nuns lying prostrate with arms outstretched on a raised wooden platform shaped like a cross. It reportedly cost less than $100,000 at the time — mere pocket change compared with many lavish and less effective productions that have come and gone from the Met stage since.
"Dialogues," first performed at La Scala in 1957, is one of a handful of post-1950 operas that have found a permanent place in the repertory. It's a shame the Met scheduled only three performances in the closing days of the season. Let's hope it won't be another 10 years before we see it again.