Dialogues 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.
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.
Sister Constance and Sister Blanche here and in the top photo (Hélène Guilmette and Isabel Bayrakdarian)
Irina Mishura (back to camera) as Mother Marie and Judith Forst as Madame de Croissy
Mother Marie with Blanche
Adrianne Pieczonka at the centre as Madame Lidoine