Premiered in 1997 at Nederlandse Opera, seen at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and La Scala in Milan, Robert Carsen’s production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites is better than a new production, because it’s an acclaimed classic. And now it’s coming to the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto, presented by the Canadian Opera Company in May. Carsen is a huge star in the operatic world, yet has only recently started directing in Toronto; better late than never.
And there’s a DVD of the production from 2004. I picked it up when I went to see Lucia last week at the Four Seasons Centre.
Poulenc’s style is surprisingly accessible, considering it’s an opera written after 1950. In places it reminds me of Pelléas et Mélisande, another opera without any arias or big set-pieces, and with a spiritual focus.
I don’t want to spoil the best moments of Carsen’s production, except to address his interpretation broadly. The most distinctive element is the use of the chorus, something I’m particularly aware of after seeing David Alden’s Lucia and François Girard’s Parsifal this past week (the latter in a high-definition encore). Although I suspect Carsen’s ideas were ground-breaking in 1997, nowadays such deployments of personnel are more common. In a nutshell, the chorus move beyond their usual role to become a major part of the mise-en-scène, a dramaturgical feature. Carsen’s reading merely amplifies what’s already latent in the story & the score, the revolutionary mob that lurks at the heart of this story.
This is perhaps the most passionate opera ever written. How so? Because there is almost no action in it. This is a passive world, filled with surrender. Even when the mob comes to get the nuns near the end, the pronouncement is in the passive voice, as we hear the statement made that they have been condemned. Everyone –the people included—are passive in this opera.
The one action of the work occurs when Blanche –who could have escaped—chooses to join the nuns in the procession to the guillotine. Much of this surrender is of a spiritual sort, the moments among the Carmelite nuns like an ongoing meditation or prayer.
Carsen reverses one trend rather decisively. Director’s theatre usually deconstructs powerful discourses such as war or finance or monarchy or religion. I think most would agree that Carsen manages to be truer to Poulenc’s piety than to the text in his score; but I won’t tell you how because that would spoil it. At times the action seems to float in a safe place with the souls between lives rather than in the brutal place on earth where the incarnated souls (aka “people”) get massacred.
Among the glories of this DVD is the work of Riccardo Muti & the La Scala Orchestra, playing this remarkable score. It’s full of instantaneous effects, quicksilver changes of mood & temperament, mercurial emotions boiling over at any time. I have read lots of praise for the orchestras in Chicago & New York, but never heard this orchestra spoken of in the same breath: possibly because the appraisals were being made by proud Americans; i have no problem with pride, so long as we acknowledge another magnificent ensemble, namely Muti’s orchestra at La Scala.
In May go see this wonderful production, and by the way, i would say it’s a better cast than what’s on the DVD. And after you’ve seen it at the COC, take home the DVD as a lovely souvenir.