Originally published in Opera NewsFrancis Poulenc’s twentieth-century take on French Revolution tyranny is a far cry from Caramoor’s bel canto bailiwick, but Will Crutchfield is adding it to the festival’s repertory. ALAN KOZINN finds out why.
In the mid-1990s, when the directors of the Caramoor International Music Festival, in Katonah, New York, decided that the annual summer festival needed an opera program, they invited Will Crutchfield to discuss the possibilities. Crutchfield, a former New York Times critic who began conducting opera in 1992, had quickly established an expertise in repertory that ran from Handel through Verdi. Since his student days, he has also researched the interpretive traditions of the bel canto style. Crutchfield outlined a program that would play to that passion, and in 1997, the Bel Canto Opera series at Caramoor was launched.
It has delighted many and surprised no one that the series has presented both masterworks and neglected scores from the bel canto era — including Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia and Élisabeth (a long-lost score Crutchfield discovered in the basement of Covent Garden during a 1984 research trip); Bellini’s Capuleti e i Montecchi and I Puritani;and an exploration of Rossini that has included Semiramide, Guillaume Tell and oddities such as Ciro in Babilonia. But many observers were intrigued when Caramoor announced this summer’s Bel Canto program. Yes, there’s a Donizetti semi-rarity — La Favorite, on July 11. The season’s opener, though, is a shocker: on July 25, Crutchfield will conduct the French-language version of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, a searing twentieth-century masterwork not typically mentioned in the same breath as bel canto.
How has Poulenc’s 1956 work, a meditation on the mystical faith of a group of Carmelite nuns and the terrors of the French Revolution, found a place in the Bel Canto Opera series? Crutchfield’s reasons for breaking out of his specialty are various — and sheer happenstance played a role — but for starters, he refuses to see either the name or the customary focus of his series as a straitjacket.
“Mostly Mozart doesn’t do only Mozart, and the Monteverdi Choir doesn’t only sing Monteverdi,” the fifty-seven-year-old conductor said in a recent interview at his Upper West Side apartment. “I don’t think there’s any reason that a program based in bel canto has to always do a bel canto opera. It’s better for everybody to have some nutritional variety in the diet. Everyone sees the importance of maintaining our brand, and I would always want to. But the advantage of diversification is that it stretches our muscles, it keeps things fresh, and it gives our audience some variety. And this seemed the right time to put something truly not bel canto into the mix.”
Crutchfield began considering Dialogues in 2012, shortly after he saw a production of the work by the Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble at a small theater in the East Village. The staging was directed by his daughter, Victoria Crutchfield, now twenty-seven, who came to the task having completed a literature degree at Harvard and directing studies with Stephen Wadsworth at the Juilliard School.
“It reminded me of all the things I loved about the opera,” says her father. “I think of Dialogues des Carmélites as one of a small group of mid- to late-twentieth-century operas in which beauty of voice and beauty of singing are a welcome part of the score. There is a lot of twentieth-century opera in which you can say it’s better if the voices are beautiful, but it doesn’t seem to be central to the purpose of the music. But here’s a work, coming along past the midpoint of the century, and immediately after its premiere, it is being sung by Leontyne Price, Joan Sutherland, Anneliese Rothenberger, Virginia Zeani, Régine Crespin — real singers, whose personal instincts had to do with making a beautiful line, and whose fan base had to do with hearing that beautiful line. And here it is, a drama that is absolutely modern, absolutely severe, absolutely serious, for which those voices were a fit. So if a bel canto-based program is going to jump off its repertory and do something from the twentieth century, it makes sense for it to be something as beautiful as this score.
“Now, that said,” Crutchfield continues, “what makes it a great opera is the combination of Poulenc’s cool musical beauty with this hair-raising, gripping drama. And the perfect matching of those seemingly incompatible elements packs an enormous punch. When you hear Poulenc’s songs, you almost think you’re hearing café music. His vocabulary is luxuriously expanded tonality. He uses a lot of the harmonies of popular music — sevenths and ninths — in a way that’s very similar to jazz. And the striking thing is, the same vocabulary that produces those gauzy, luxuriant, lush songs is put right into the opera and turned to different expressive purposes. If he wants to make it snap, or stab, or terrorize, he can do that. And so it’s a matter of a composer in absolutely full possession of his personal vocabulary and his technical means — his chops — able to make the music say what he needs it to say, while still being itself. And that is the mark of a great composer.”
Since opera at Caramoor is semistaged — the singers share the stage with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s at the festival’s Venetian Theater — the dramatic possibilities are limited; but then, Dialogues is a fairly talky piece, and its climactic scene, in which the nuns go, one by one, to the guillotine, takes place offstage.
“Actually,” Crutchfield says, “the big finale takes place in your heart and your ear. Because you hear that beautiful music and the voices falling away one by one, and the uncompromisingly daring stroke of hearing the guillotine fall, over and over. That could have been a cheap effect. Instead, because Poulenc was a genius, although the guillotine interrupts the music, quite literally, the music nevertheless carries you through and refuses to be disturbed, refuses to be silenced until the last one is dead, and when Blanche, who could have escaped, takes up the strain and chooses her unity with those who have gone to the guillotine before her, it is maybe the most heartrending finale in all opera.”
“One thing that really struck me,” he says of the Dell’Arte staging, “was that all the nuns — beyond those in the principal roles — seemed to have personalities. I realized that in all my previous experiences of seeing the opera, I was aware of the personalities in the big roles, but the rest seemed like a chorus. And in this production, they most decidedly didn’t.” Having been taken with his daughter’s Dell’Arte production, Crutchfield has engaged her to oversee the semi-staging at Caramoor. He is aware enough of potential whispers of nepotism to mention it himself — “It’s a good kind of nepotism,” he says, “because the idea really came from her” — and he argues that her ideas will stand on their own.
That, Victoria Crutchfield explains, was because she took into account the Georges Bernanos screenplay on which Poulenc’s opera is based. “This is a piece with a long artistic history,” she says, “largely because it’s a real event. Not only did it really happen that these sixteen women were martyred in the Revolution, but there are reports that they went to the guillotine singing. So it’s a dramatic moment in history that has inspired a lot of writers. Bernanos, in his version, included many more scenes for the so-called ‘little’ nuns. They all have names and at least implied backgrounds and personalities, and they have taken different sides on the Revolution. Some have some sympathy for the revolutionaries. Others clearly have none. And of course the ones who do have a kind of dual loyalty, because the revolutionaries were against not only the Ancien Régime but the clergy as well.
“So I felt that the Poulenc piece would be better with nuns who were distinct individuals, rather than just a mass of nuns in habits. If we don’t see that it’s a real world, then the psychodrama aspect takes on too much weight, and it loses its sense of context.” To help clarify those personalities, Caramoor is presenting its young artists — the singers who will perform smaller roles — in a reading of excerpts from the Bernanos script that were not used in the opera, on the afternoon of the full opera performance.
Casting, Will Crutchfield says, came easily: as soon as he began thinking about performing the work, he realized that several singers he had been working with at Caramoor and elsewhere were ideally suited to the principal roles.
One was Hei-Kyung Hong, who Crutchfield says is “one of my very favorite singers, someone I’ve been listening to with pleasure as long as she’s been singing in New York.” Hong agreed to take on Mme. Lidoine, the new Prioress, a first for her. Jennifer Check, who sang Élisabeth in Don Carlos at Caramoor in 2013, has Lidoine in her repertory, but Crutchfield persuaded her to take up the role of Blanche, the conflicted young nun around whom the story turns.
“I saw certain qualities in her expression that made me think, ‘I want this singer for Blanche,’” Crutchfield says. “When I asked her, she might have said, ‘I prefer to sing Lidoine,’ so I was thrilled when she said, ‘I’ve been dying to get my hands on Blanche.’ That’s very exciting for us.”
Jennifer Larmore, also a member of Caramoor’s Don Carlos cast, will sing her first-ever Mère Marie, the sub-Prioress who insists that the nuns take a vow of martyrdom, thereby sealing their fate. And Alisa Jordheim will sing Sister Constance.
Deborah Polaski will sing Madame de Croissy, the old Prioress. “We have turned a disappointment into an opportunity,” Crutchfield says. Early in the planning, Crutchfield cast Polish contralto Ewa Podles΄ in the role. But shortly after his plans were announced, Podles΄´ withdrew for health reasons: though she continues to sing in Europe, her doctors have advised her to avoid transatlantic or Far East flights.
And what does Crutchfield have planned for future summers? Meyerbeer’s Prophète and Bellini’s Pirata are in the works, as is Beethoven’s Fidelio. But so far, there is no talk of another foray into the modern repertory.
“There are no immediate plans to move this far away from our historical repertory,” Crutchfield says. “There are plans to look at some operas from the verismo period that I think are relevant to what we do, and that need a good musical statement for New York audiences. But stay tuned — there could be other ideas.”
ALLAN KOZINN, for many years a music critic for The New York Times, is a freelance writer about music and culture.