Stage: Wednesday, January 11, 2006
In a wrenching tale of martyrdom, Eugenie Grunewald’s Mother Marie was a study in loyalty and human kindness.
Woods Goes Lovely, Dark, and Deep

Fort Worth Opera’s general director brings to the stage another 20th-century work — and another gem.


Since taking over as general director of the Fort Worth Opera a few years ago, Darren Woods has gone out of his way to program 20th-century works. Even though a lack of funds forced the company to scale back the number of operas per year from four to three, FWO continues to incorporate at least one new work into the schedule. Woods and company haven’t attempted anything as challenging as Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, but they have tackled Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw and Mark Adamo’s Little Women. Some opening night attendees may not return after intermission, but ticket sales have remained steady, and the company has added a second bus to its transportation service for Dallas subscribers.

The latest entry in Woods’ off-beat sweepstakes was last week’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. A study in fear, paranoia, and the power of faith, Francis Poulenc’s 1957 piece was nicely handled by FWO — the singing and the drama were better than in FWO’s most recent production of the old standby La Traviata.

Based on an incident from the Reign of Terror that gripped France during the 1789 revolution, the story traces the battle of conscience faced by the nuns of a tiny Carmelite community when commanded to renounce their faith. The nuns’ refusal ended in their slaughter, and their demise may be a metaphor for every generation’s struggle to defend its beliefs.

Like most new operas, Dialogues is a sung play. No arias or ensembles pop up to comment on the action, which places a burden on the performers, whose acting must equal their vocal skills. The music isn’t intrusive but tonal and straightforward, providing elegant restraint at times and, during climactic moments, rising with compelling energy.

The challenge was met by a majority of the excellent cast, headed by extraordinary mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood as the old prioress. Her enormous honey-coated voice rattled the rafters in a death scene worthy of Maria Callas. In pain and suffering, the prioress rails against her God for putting her through such misery after a life of service — the debilitating illness that racks her body eventually carries her away.

After this powerhouse performance that closed the first act, the opening night audience had no choice but to come back, but the opera seemed to sag a bit. It wasn’t helped by soprano Janice Hall’s one-dimensional portrayal of Blanche, a complex, pivotal role that seems beyond the singer right now. A fragile creature afraid of her own shadow, Blanche enters the monastery seeking refuge from the world, only to find more grist for her fears, which sends her running home. Hall presented the outline of the character but not the inner turmoil. In addition, her voice tended to sound strident on top, and her diction was erratic, which didn’t help.

More convincing was Eugenie Grunewald’s Mother Marie, a study in loyalty and human kindness, richly etched and handsomely sung. And Sarah Tannehill was a winning little Constance, a chatterbox novice filled with youthful, romantic notions about life and death, who breaks your heart with her courage and simple trust in God.

The small male roles were sung solidly — Brandon Poor as Blanche’s father, Scott Scully as her brother, and Benjamin Bunsold as the priest.

Christopher Larkin, who conducted The Turn of the Screw and Little Women in past seasons, was on hand again for this assignment, and he coaxed some wonderful sounds from the Fort Worth Symphony in the pit. The direction by Casey Stangl, in her Fort Worth Opera debut, had an economy of movement, which suited the drama.

Taking on a major new work with assurance and style, Fort Worth Opera has taken another step forward.

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