Washington National Opera’s premiere of Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” is set during the French Revolution, when Carmelite nuns were guillotined for refusing to renounce their faith. Sung in the composer’s approved English translation by Joseph Machlis, the message of the tragedy resonates at a time when social unrest and cruelty are rampant throughout the world.
The brilliant cast includes two rising sopranos, Leah Crocetto and Layla Claire. Miss Crocetto attended the Metropolitan Opera Company production two years ago and was transfixed by the characters and magnificent music. When WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello asked her to sing the role of prioress Madame Lidoine, she was overjoyed. This WNO debut is her second appearance at the Kennedy Center following her notable 2013 National Symphony Orchestra debut as the soprano soloist in Handel’s “Messiah.”
“That was a special version of the soprano solos to accommodate my big voice,” she said. “It was thrilling. Now I’m singing Madame Lidoine, [which is] such a profound role and one of the most classically written roles I’ve ever done. In the past it’s been sung by powerful singers like Leontyne Price, and I appreciate that it’s exactly where my voice likes to sit.”
Miss Crocetto grew up in an Italian family that loved all genres of music. After seeing her first opera, “Carmen,” at the age of 10 in her hometown of Adrian, Michigan, she could not ignore the pull to become a singer. One of her first jobs was singing jazz and cabaret in New York City, but opera won her heart.
An Adler Fellow and Merola Opera Program alumna of the San Francisco Opera, she has received many awards, among them First Prize, Spanish Prize and People’s Choice at the 2009 Jose Iturbi International Music Competition; 2010 Grand Prize Winner of the Metropolitan National Council Auditions; Sara Tucker Award; first prize in the Bel Canto Foundation Competition; and finalist in the Song competition in the 2011 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition.
“I’ve been blessed, and I know the greatest is yet to come,” she told The Washington Times. “My last scene in ‘Dialogues of the Carmelites’ is the pinnacle for me as a character. Madame Lidoine tells the other nuns, ‘I will take the burden and leave you all the merit.’ The impact of these words on the audience demonstrates why Poulenc wanted his opera to be sung in their native language rather than in the original French, which I heard at the Met. I’m fluent in Italian and have sung the role of Desdemona in ‘Otello’ at different opera houses. I thought I knew the role, but when I sang it in English last year with English National Opera, it meant so much more.”
Miss Claire, a Canadian soprano, sings the role of the timid, aristocratic Blanche de la Force, who enters the monastery to escape the world.
“Blanche’s predominant trait is fear, because her mother died of fear during childbirth, so she goes to the monastery to find safety,” Miss Claire explained. “Because of her emotions, she ranges to extremes, which cause the tessitura to move about a lot and jump from low to high when she is frightened.
“The ‘Deo Patri’ she sings at the very end is terrifying for me to get through because it’s so emotional. During our rehearsals, Francesca talked about the nuns’ suffering at that time and the suffering throughout the world today, which demands that we treat each other well. This is an ensemble work with deep levels we peel away like an onion. At the end of each day, we all have gone through boxes of tissues.”
Miss Claire, a native of Penticton, British Columbia, studied voice at l’Universite de Montreal followed by the Curtis Institute of Music. Since graduating from the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Program in 2012, she has channeled her love of Mozart’s operas worldwide in concert and in recital. Her awards include the Mozart Prize in 2008, the first Hildegard Behrens Foundation Award in 2010 and the Canada Council Virginia Parker Prize in 2013. Her Metropolitan Opera debut as Tebaldo in Verdi’s “Don Carlo” is a role she repeated during the Met’s tour of Japan after the 2011 tsunami. This coming May she will sing the role of Anne Trulove in the Met’s production of Stravinsky’s “The Rakes Progress,” to be broadcast on Saturday May 9.
Like Miss Crocetto, Miss Claire loved all genres of music at a young age and initially studied to be a jazz singer.
“I was drawn to the performing arts in general, everything from folk music and dance class to set design and stage craft,” she said. “When I discovered opera, it was an ‘aha’ moment to learn that it puts them all together.
“Poulenc’s opera was originally in French, but singing it in English requires us to respect the notes and rhythms he wrote. Because the title stresses that it is a dialogue, the impact of the words each nun speaks is critical. It’s tricky to adapt and achieve the goal of making it sound authentic.”
Miss Claire emphasized that in addition to directing the music, Ms. Zambello also designed the entire production, right on up to costumes made of fabrics contemporary to the story.
“It feels like you’re putting on the same clothes the nuns wore,” Miss Claire said. “She makes the French Revolution very real.”
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: Washington National Opera’s premiere of “Dialogues of the Carmelites” by Francis Poulenc.
WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House
WHEN: Feb. 21 and 23 at 7 p.m., Feb. 27, Mar. 5 and 10 at 7:30 p.m., Mar. 8 at 2 p.m.
INFO: Tickets from $25 by calling 202/467-4600 or 800/444-1324, or visiting kennedy-center.org/wno.