Sisterhood is powerless: Dialogues of the Carmelites at the COC

1128 - Constance and Blanche - Credit Michael CooperDialogues des Carmélites (1957) by Francis Poulenc at the Canadian Opera Company. Directed by Robert Carsen, conducted by Johannes Debus. Seen on May 11, 2013. My wacky intro to the opera over on Xtra.

It’s still a solid production, the Carsen-Levine Carmelites, this many years after its 1997 premiere in Amsterdam. It’s recognizably Carsen, with monochrome sets and expressive use of lighting, but what saves it from monotony are a number of really imaginative theatrical solutions.

For instance:

In the scene of the prioress’ death, Carsen has the old nun get out of bed and do quite a bit of desperate walking and clinging to Blanche (top-notch acting by Judith Forst). There is also a kiss between the two, brief but significant.

In a scene after prioress’s death, Blanche pulls the sheet over what looks like a corpse to reveal a long, grave-shaped arrangement of flowers. Those get divided into bouquets that the nuns then use in subsequent scenes.

The mob, consisting of extras and the chorus, is employed in many different ways. On one occasion, all of them pass from one end stage to the other while discreetly leaving the props behind – some as big as an overturned dinner table — to show the wreck that is left in mob’s wake. A few scenes later, when we need to find ourselves with the imprisoned nuns, they walk back, almost invisibly sweeping everything on their way.

The execution scene involves a sweet and moving, almost child-like dance (choreography by Philippe Giraudeau) that the sisters perform while being taken down one by one. They don’t fall immediately at the sound of the guillotine – which, I am guessing, is pre-recorded? – but leave you a few seconds of trepidation while you’re trying to figure out who’s falling next. Each killed nun slowly lies to the ground, arms spread and facing up.

Let’s look at the musical side. The COC orchestra under Johannes Debus played rather loudly, almost aggressively. Whenever most of the orchestra plays, you are sure to lose the singing voice. (The voices themselves, with two or three exceptions, were definitely on the thinner side.) At several turns, I could only hear the blast of the brass, but other sections weren’t exactly shy about pushing forth either. This imbalance between the pit and the stage persisted till the end.

The singing that stood out: Hélène Guilmette’s Constance (a radiant yet firm soprano with the timbre alla Patricia Petibon), Irina Mishura’s Marie (a pretty, dark golden mezzo voice) plus the star casting, Adrianne Pieczonka as Madame Lidoine (unusual, and refreshing, to hear the Wagnerian sweep and volume among the sisters, but a good partner for the orchestra on steroids) and Jean-François Lapointe as Marquis de la Force (a Quebecois that is currently probably the hottest baritone on the operatic circuit in France; his role was all too short—here’s hoping he’s back at the COC in something more substantial).

It’s a phenomenally photogenic production, so here follow more photos than usual. All photos in this post are by Michael Cooper.

0628 - Constance and Blanche - Credit Michael CooperSister Constance and Sister Blanche here and in the top photo (Hélène Guilmette and Isabel Bayrakdarian)

0826 - Mother Marie and Madame de Croissy - Credit Michael CooperIrina Mishura (back to camera) as Mother Marie and Judith Forst as Madame de Croissy

1967 - Mother Marie and Blanche - Credit Michael CooperMother Marie with Blanche

2006 - Scene with Nuns surrounded by French Revolutionaries - Credit Michael Cooper

2081 - Madame Lidoine with nuns - Credit Michael CooperAdrianne Pieczonka at the centre as Madame Lidoine


4 thoughts on “Sisterhood is powerless: Dialogues of the Carmelites at the COC

  1. the Ave Maria is fantastic- sublime music and sublime singing. Poulenc is a favorite. Interesting life- composed Les Biches for the Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. He had a religious experience after the death of someone close and he became devoutly Catholic in his own ‘gay’ way.

    1. Fer shur. “You know that I am as sincere in my faith, without any messianic screamings, as I am in my Parisian sexuality,” he’s said to have said.

      I really want to see Les Mamelles de Tirésias, I wonder if there are any DVDs of it.

      1. If you find out that there is a DVD of Les Mamelles… please let me know- I would be interested in seeing it.
        I just saw the play Nikolai and The Others about Balanchine, Stravinsky and a group of Russians in 1948 and the intersection of Cold War politics and art during the making of Balanchine’s ballet Orpheus. Quite an interesting premise- very Checkhovian.

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