There is no other sound like it in opera: a guillotine comes down with a thud, silencing voice after voice, until the last one is stilled. A long horrifying silence is followed by a beautiful melody denoting the rise of souls to heaven.
The scene is the uniquely dramatic finale of Francois Poulenc’s 1953 “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” one of the last century’s greatest, yet rarely performed, operas, which opens March 31 in a presentation by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Opera Theater.
San Francisco Opera gave the U.S. premiere in 1957 with Leontyne Price, Dorothy Kirsten and Blanche Thebom. In 1982, it was heard in the War Memorial for the last time, with Price again, Carol Vanness and Régine Crespin.
Its long absence could be due to its sprawling story about individual decisions between conscience and survival in the face of the 1793-94 Reign of Terror after the French Revolution. The era was marked by mass executions, including the aristocracy and members of religious orders, such as the Carmelite nuns, who are the heroines of “Dialogues,” each with a decision to make between life and death.
“It not only requires a sophisticated level of musicality, but it also demands a broad range of acting skills,” says Richard Harrell, director of the conservatory’s opera theater.
The student organization is brave to produce the work, directed by Harrell and conducted by Michael Morgan.
Morgan describes it as “one of those pieces in opera where everything that matters about opera comes together. The story is compelling, the characters are engaging and the music is both emotionally stirring and beautiful. Because there are not arias in the traditional sense, it is harder for the piece to be a hit with the public. But those who give themselves over to drama will be extremely moved by it.”
The musical language, Harrell says, “has a rich and dramatic texture; melodic ‘tunes’ tend to be assigned to the beautiful liturgical Latin prayers which Poulenc composed mostly as ensemble numbers.
The ‘dialogues’ between characters are normal speech under dramatic circumstances, requiring concentrated attention from the performers. These musical and dramatic challenges are ideal teaching tools for training the kind of singing actors found in professional opera houses today.”
IF YOU GO
Dialogues of the Carmelites
Presented by San Francisco Conservatory of Music
Where: Cowell Theater, Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, San Francisco
When: 7:30 p.m. March 31 and April 1-2; 2 p.m. April 3
Tickets: $15 to $20
Contact: (415) 345-7575, www.sfcm.edu