Religion is something for the lunatic or for slackers. So for those who cannot cope with what we call “reality”. This is the contemporary dogma of music theater directing. You can make bets beforehand that Renata has something to do with every new production of Sergei Prokofiev’s “The Fiery Angel”. And in Claus Guth’s new production of Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues des Carmélites”, which is now being shown at the Frankfurt Opera, the young aristocrat Blanche de la Force, who decides to become a nun, is a poor lunatic. When in the midst of the terror of revolution – the execution of the sixteen Carmelite Sisters from the Compiègne monastery is documented – with her religious sisters on the scaffold, then for Claus Guth it means above all acting out a psychosis in the head of the main character: all imagination without reference to the outside world.
Well, Guth is not so wrong with that. Even the play by Georges Bernanos, which Poulenc follows in his opera, completed in 1957, portrays Blanche as a woman full of fear who knows no other way of helping herself than through the religious legitimation of her inability to withstand the world. Poulenc himself wrote that Blanche is not just about fear, but about madness. But in the “Dialogues of the Carmelite Sisters” – a pretty clever libretto – not only the psychosis of the leading actress is negotiated. It is about humility as hypocrisy, about pride even in humiliation, about the sincere exploration of the motives for one’s own actions and the constant examination of whether one is not misusing the name of God for selfish purposes.
In the end, it is also about the meaning of martyrdom, about the Christian confidence that life is not over with death, and about an understanding of morality that requires people to sacrifice their lives for an idea. The execution of the nuns documents the totalitarian character of a modern need for emancipation, which makes short work of those who do not follow it. The sociologist Peter Ludwig Berger described this as the “repressive character of modern secularity”. Anyone who reflexively disqualifies religious people as insane – as a world flight and mentally ill – continues this intellectual repression.
Theatrically, however, Guth does a brilliant job. He had the set designer Martina Segna build a cubist landscape that should refer to the future rather than the past because – as he puts it himself – this “hardness and coldness” also stands for a world in which there is no stop give and where nothing can be relied on. Maria Bengtsson, with more lyrical than dramatic timbres, captivatingly delicate in her vocal charisma, plays the Blanche from her first appearance on as a fragile but mysterious woman. It cannot be unraveled: a mixture of Debussy’s “Mélisande” and Hitchcock’s “Marnie”. If she insists on her brother that her fear also contains the courage to fight, she develops an ember that is, in turn, frightening. Jonathan Abernethy encounters her in this dispute with a tenor full of overflowing love, delicate diction and matt gloss, which already suggests a coming Chevalier des Grieux in Jules Massenet’s “Manon”.
Elena Zilio is an event as the old Prioress Madame de Croissy: an old woman with gray hair and wrinkled skin on her arms, but a voice as bright and pure as the sun on a frosty January day. These moments of anotherworldly radiance abruptly alternate with those incidental flashes when she subjects Blanche to an unsentimental test of the mind, as well as those crass creatures in real fear of death. The glass coffin in which she then rests resembles an incubator. The symbolist condensation is great: the picture links the fairy tale of Snow White with the promise of salvation of modern medical apparatus, the death of Blanche’s “second mother” with that of her first, who died in Blanche’s premature birth – triggered by fear of an attack against the nobility.
As masterfully as Poulenc succeeded in giving the female characters their own vocal physiognomy, the singers are so happy to meet this challenge. As the new Prioress, Ambur Braid exudes the goodness of a faith that does not consider fear of conscience to be God’s will. Even weeping over the premature vows of martyrdom taken by the nuns takes up their singing without revealing themselves as singing. Florina Ilie as sister Constance gives away her voice with summery grace. Her soprano, warm and bright, confirms a joy of life that has always embraced death through sounding evidence. Claudia Mahnke, as sister Marie, draws the complex character portrait of a woman who is torn: a thirst for power and mercy, religious fundamentalism and faint heartedness are all in her at the same time. She shows superiority, behind it rummage doubts and longing for attention. There was long and loving applause when Frankfurt’s opera director Bernd Loebe officially named her chamber singer after the performance on stage – on behalf of the mayor.
The evening is held together superbly by the young Lithuanian conductor Giedre Šlekyte, who leads the Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra through this chamber version by Takeshi Moriuchi. She has the same instinct for the spiritual brittleness of many of the Igor Stravinsky wind chords as she does for the orchestral velvet chords, which are reminiscent of arrangements of the chansons by Jean Lenoir and Charles Trenet from the 1940s. Above all, she drives the dialogue forward in a targeted manner and with light-footed elegance. In addition to the conductor Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla, the singers Asmik Grigorian, Aušrine Stundyte and Vida Miknevičiute, Šlekyte is the next Lithuanian within a few years to set the tone in Europe’s opera world.