I've been terribly remiss in my intention to go to the local cinema when it is showing the Metropolitan Opera (of New York) in live digital video. Just when I make up my mind to go see a particular opera, a schedule conflict crops up. So, year after year, it doesn't happen.
Recently, however, I sprang for a DVD of an opera, and I watched it today. The opera was Dialogues of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc, performed in English by The Australian Opera in 1984, under the direction of Richard Bonynge and featuring the late and lamented Joan Sutherland. The celebrated opera star plays Madame Lidoine, the Mother Superior of a French convent at the time of the French Revolution.
There is a true story behind this opera (which, I believe, Poulenc based on an unproduced screenplay). Eleven nuns, three lay sisters, and two convent servants went to the guillotine in 1794 and became Catholic martyrs who, today, are well on their way toward canonization.
It is a difficult story to watch. These women saw their doom coming but did not stop doing what they believed in, and faced death with great courage. Mostly. One way the opera departs from historical fact is the death scene of Mme. Lindoine's predecessor as Mother Superior, Mme. de Croissy, who in reality was one of the 16 who rode the tumbril that day in 1797. In the opera, Mme. de Croissy suffers an excruciating death at the end of Act 1. This scene is a gruelling depiction of physical pain and spiritual unrest, made all the more vivid by the spectacular acting of Danish mezzo Lone Koppel. In a profound way, everything goes downhill after her character's death.
Another non-historical figment of Poulenc's libretto is the central character of Blanche de la Force, played in this 1984 Australian production Scotch prima donna Isobel Buchanan. In a story that is essentially about courage, her character's struggle to overcome paralyzing fear makes a moving, personal framework for a story that otherwise is held at a respectful distance. But I noticed there is no "Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ" listed among the Martyrs of Compiègne. Nevertheless her free choice to climb the steps to the guillotine in the final moments of the opera puts an ironic veneer of "happy ending" on an otherwise inevitably tragic tale.
Also appearing in this film are Kiwi diva Heather Begg as Mother Mary, Australian baritone Geoffrey Chard as Blanche's father, and long-time down-under Phantom of the Opera lead Anthony Warlow in a minor role. I enjoyed the acting, and one ensemble number in particular was very beautiful. Mostly it wasn't the kind of opera that is stuffed with tuneful arias, rather it was a sung drama in which the dialogue is set to highly expressive recitative and backed up by striking orchestral music.
Though it was sung in English, I would have understood much more of the dialogue had the cheapo Kultur DVD production bothered to include captions. In my opinion, failing to include captions in any DVD video is a breach of the contract the video industry made with consumers when they persuaded us to switch from VHS, and any video that lacks them loses beaucoup points on my scorecard.