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One could play a game with Dialogues of the Carmelites, French composer/librettist Francis Poulenc’s 1956 opera about a bunch of nuns who got guillotined during the French Revolution. Call it “Who said it: Poulenc or ISIS?” See how you do and check your answers after the jump:

1. “Prayer is a duty; martyrdom is a reward.”

2. “We love death more than you love life.”

3. “I have always known that God would be kinder than to let me grow old and that we would die together, the same day.”

4. “Purify yourselves, and perhaps God will place us in Paradise.”

5. “They have a great need of martyrs, so you see, there’s a service we can provide.”

6. “May God hasten our martyrdom.”

7. “Bah! When there’s death on every hand, dying is nothing!”

8. “Should we die as martyrs or wait for victory? We see conquests, victory, and all this pure blood, and we say: O Lord, postpone our martyrdom so we can witness victory.”

9. “One day I realized life is so delightful, death had to be the same.”

10. “France will be conquered, God willing.”

(Answers: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 Poulenc; 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 ISIS)

Few have probably seen Dialogues of the Carmelites staged before; partly due to it being a mid-20th-century work, but also partly due to it being a total bummer. This production is a first for the Washington National Opera, though not for WNO director Francesca Zambello—-she’d staged it before with the Paris Opera and Santa Fe Opera, to some acclaim. That acclaim was more for the historicity than for the staging itself, though, as the stage design consists of mostly bare, giant concave walls that rotate between scenes, so that every scene looks like it takes place in, uh, a room with bare, giant concave walls.

For a historical drama, Dialogues of the Carmelites is pretty light on the history and drama: It’s an opera (based on a failed movie screenplay, no less) about the French Revolution that somehow manages not to show any mobs, torches, or guillotines until about two hours in. Instead, it’s heavy on introspection and circuitous discussions of the nature of God, sacrifice, and mortality. This has to do with the subjects of Poulenc’s opera, the Carmelite Sisters, among the most cloistered of the cloistered orders who just wanted to be left alone by the torch-bearing rabble to pray, and maybe went a bit nuts in the process.

So this is no La Bohème or Les Miz; it’s more like The Myth of Sisyphus: The Opera. The fact that the opening scene begins with an aristocrat sprawled on an easy chair, yawning, is a sign of things to come. The aristocrat is the father of Blanche, the story’s protagonist, a troubled (we are told) young woman who runs off to join the Carmelite Sisters. Poulenc’s libretto is heavy on exposition because none of the characters’ motivations are self-evident; Blanche supposedly finds peace in the nun’s life, though her closest companions in the convent are a delirious mother superior who spouts blasphemies from her deathbed and a creepy best friend who’s obsessed with martyrdom. (All the singing is in English, easy to understand, and no less morbid.)

By the time the sans-culottes show up, you already know the nuns are done for, this being the height of the Revolution’s anti-clerical fervor. Still, it takes a while to get there, and for all the build-up to their heroic martyrdom, when they wheel out the national razor, we don’t even get to see it. We do hear a lot about that ultimate sacrifice though, mostly though that death-obsessed best friend, Sister Constance, who seems to be around just to provide foreshadowing. Soprano Ashley Emerson plays her with a crazed grin and unsettlingly chipper delivery. Another high point, if you see it that way, is the tortured Act I death scene of mezzo Dolora Zajick, the mother superior. Soprano Layla Claire, as Sister Blanche, has a bright, clear timbre that gives Blanche a sweetly innocent quality as she reacts to the swirl of events around her, though it’s clear by the end she wasn’t reactive enough to all the warning signs that convent + cult of martyrdom + Reign of Terror = bad news.

Despite it being just 60 years old, Poulenc’s opera is surprisingly melodic. He swiped a lot from Verdi and other Romantic and Impressionist composers, which makes the music fairly accessible if a bit plodding on the liturgical stuff. (This was no joke to Poulenc, a devout Catholic; he was also openly gay, and his relationship with the Church was a complicated one.) Anthony Walker conducts the WNO orchestra, rather meekly and unevenly with several hiccups from the horns, though it’s Poulenc’s fault that big crescendos seem to come out of nowhere and for no reason (one perplexing percussive boom punctuates an exchange where one character gives another character an address).

The mix of devotional passages and big romantic climaxes makes for a split-personality score, a product of Poulenc’s personal religiosity and the adventure film script that he built his opera on. There are other examples of this kind of thing not working out well: For Greater Glory, Andy Garcia’s ham-handed epic about Mexico’s Cristero War comes to mind. In Zambello’s production, the devotion wins out over the adventure. Which is fine—-these were martyrs, after all. But maybe martyrdom isn’t something we should get too romantic about.

Dialogues of the Carmelites continues Feb. 23 and 27, and March 5, 8, and 10 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $25 – $300.

Photo by Scott Suchman