There were more gains than losses in the March 11 production of Francis Poulenc’s masterful opera Dialogues of the Carmelites by the ECU School of Music Opera Theatre. The ascetic and bare-bones staging was given in the chancel, in the crossing between the transepts of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Greenville, about two blocks northeast of the campus. On the “down” portion of my four-hour round trip, I had hoped that limited space and resources would not necessitate the opera’s presentation with only piano accompaniment. In addition to aspects of the composers Monteverdi, Verdi, and Mussorgsky, the acerbic flavor of Stravinsky’s “Symphonies of Winds” had considerable influence on Poulenc’s distinctive scoring. For this series of performances, Music Director John O’Brien made his own reduction and transcription of the orchestration for the King of Instruments, the organ. He accompanied from the lower corner of the west transept, using a “prince-ling,” a “canned” electronic organ. It was adequate for the task, never covering the singers while suggesting something of the composer’s wide palette of timbres. The church’s huge new C.B. Fisk organ is still a work in progress that fills the whole south end of the nave.

While the opera is based on a play of the same name by Georges Bemanos that traces its inspiration back to the memoirs of the surviving Carmelite nun from Compiègne, Marie de l’Incarnation, its subject is not the slaughter of the nuns during the French Revolution. Poulenc, a fervent Catholic, viewed the focus as “grace and the transference of grace.” This was brought to the personal level through Sister Constance’s idea that the Old Prioress’s hard death may have been in place of someone else’s. The premise is that her death made the fear-ridden Blanche’s entry into the order possible in martyrdom.

Use of the organ along with the church’s ambiance enhanced one of the two dominating types of music used in the opera, the religious music. This is described in The Viking Book of the Opera as “the prayers, the pulse and counterpoint of Renaissance religious music… in a cloistered life… at once miraculous and mundane.” This contrasts with the music of fear, “typified by a rising minor third… heard throughout” but most devastatingly in the final scene, during which the nuns enter singing the Salve Regina over an unsettling rhythmic ostinato based on minor thirds.

With the absence of a stage loft, curtains, and rigging, Stage Director John Kramar made a virtue of necessity. He used the linear massed bodies of his cast to shield the changing of the minimalist set elements and the positioning of the cast for each scene. It was a brilliant solution. The blocking of the groups was generally fine. The level of acting ranged from alto Sharon Munden’s total identification with her character – she’s clearly a professional singing actress with considerable experience – through acceptable stylized gestures by some of the student leads and extras. Soprano Meredith Williams, as the lively Sister Constance, was the student cast member most consistently in character. Mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel, as Mother Marie, and baritone Brandon Gaines, as the Marquis de la Force, Sister Blanche’s father, had some very moving scenes.

Dialogues is very much a singers’ opera, with almost every main character singing solo and with few ensembles. The two important choruses had been very well prepared by the Chorus Master Daniel Bara. With the absence of any obvious conductor, the high quality of the ensemble was amazing. O’Brien had all his limbs “tied up” with the organ. Kramar sat nearby, following the score, but the only cue that I saw him give was for the shattering sound effects of the off stage “guillotine,” which was more terrifying than that heard in Met broadcasts and on recordings.

From a seat about midway back in the nave, most of the sound was clear and well balanced. Occasionally, O’Brien might have erred too much on the side of caution with the organ part. The most serious problem occurred when any high voice – tenor or soprano – rose above mezzo-forte, above which the hall reverberation afflicted the singers’ best efforts. Overall, the diction was excellent. The hall loved lower voices and none more than the powerful and resonate baritone of Gaines, as the Marquis. His tone was felt as well as heard, and every word was crystal clear. Tenor Chris Neely has a sweet and lovely timbre and rock-solid high notes, and his voice was very evenly supported across its range. His acting was understated but effective. Probably every alto wants a “meaty” role like that of the Old Prioress, Madame de Croissy, since it culminates in what many commentators have called “the most realistic death scene” in opera. Every moment that she was on the stage, Munden was totally in character, her voice revealing her every emotion. I cannot imagine that her harrowing death scene could be improved upon. Soprano Williams, as the irrepressible novice, Sister Constance, was a delight in every way; she is a most promising talent. Her voice is much larger than usual in the role (a light soprano); it, too, is rock-solid and pure, and she has brilliant highs and plenty of heft. She is a fine singing actress already. In the central role of Sister Blanche, who is as afraid of life as she is of death, soprano Elizabeth Frazer’s very bright voice reminded me – as often negatively as positively – of the likes of Lily Pons and (shudder) Mady Mesple. Her very fast vibrato is not at all to my taste, and her acting was often too generalized. In her scene with Mother Marie (Act III, s.2), in which she is urged to return to the order, she was at once dramatic and – as she soared above f – acidic and unclear. Mezzo-soprano Nansteel, an ECU Opera Theatre veteran, was a fine Mother Marie. She revealed a granite-like top of considerable power, and her portrayal of the Mother Superior’s anguish and guilt at not being able to rejoin her order for its martyrdom (Act III, s.3) was superb.

In the theater, “the show must go on!” Before the performance began, Kramar announced that allergies had taken the voice of soprano Erica Washburn, the scheduled Madame Lidoine, the New Prioress. With only eighteen hours notice, Joan Shaw sang the role beautifully from beside the organ, just offstage, while Washburn lip-synched and mimed the part. From musical and dramatic points of view, tenor David Clark was adequate in the thankless role of the Father Confessor. Other students made up the rest of the cast of nuns and members of the mob and revolutionary guards.

Anoush Terjanian, of ECU’s History Department, packed a lot of background into her pre-concert lecture, which placed the opera in the context of the stages of the French Revolution and its worst excesses during “The Reign of Terror.”