I like to read a director’s notes before seeing a show, because they often contain clues about what you’re going to see. Robert Carsen’s take on Dialogues des Carmelites is a case in point. The production has been mounted all over the world, first in the Netherlands in 1997, including such major companies as Chicago Lyric Opera and La Scala in Milan (who produced a DVD that I reviewed a few weeks ago). But I didn’t really understand it quite so clearly until I saw Carsen’s notes before tonight’s performance (the second last of the production’s run) at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto.
I’m seeing it late mostly because that’s the hand I was dealt by my subscription, but also because I felt this production & this opera don’t need any help from me. I assumed it would do well at the box office and likely would have great word of mouth.
In the program Carsen explained that “dialogue is at the centre of the dramaturgical material”. And so each scene is really about the relationship of the principals singing onstage, literally a dialogue. We may watch a pair of characters seek or avoid eye contact. At times the chorus present the gradually impinging reality of the French revolution upon the various milieux we encounter, whether aristocratic or not. At one point Blanche (Isabel Bayrakdarian) and her brother (Frédéric Antoun) engage in a heart-rending dialogue through a curtain of nuns, the screening effect of those bodies representing the cloister to which Blanche has moved.
I understood the religious aspect of this opera in an entirely new way tonight, possibly getting something with Carsen’s help that had eluded me before. Poulenc’s opera is studded with little religious set pieces, such as an Ave Verum Corpus, an Ave Maria, and the Salve regina that ends the work. When people talk about religion we hear about extremes, either abuses or ideals: but in reality? It’s a challenging enterprise that we do while our kids are getting sick, our marriages are breaking up, our countries going to war, or into depression, family members are dying or we are sick. It’s the backdrop against which the rest of our lives (some of us anyway) unfold from beginning to end, a possible source of comfort, but ultimately, something we notice in passing, while all those big things (marriage, parenting, sickness, war, death) happen anyway. We are told that religion is heroic, and that’s very much what we see, not just in the trip to the scaffold at the end of the opera; every step is a challenge. This was especially powerful in Michael Colvin’s wonderful scene giving mass as Chaplain, singing gently but fully supported & wonderfully articulate in his scene.
There were many other wonderful moments. I’m a fan of Adrianne Pieczonka, and was fascinated by her approach to Madame Lidoine. At times I thought she was holding back because she has so much voice to give, and of course in the last act she cut loose with that wonderful warm timbre she generates, a combination of fullness with agility that other singers can only envy. Judith Forst’s charismatic Madame de Croissy was so vivid I forgot I was watching a performance, spellbound. Can I mention everyone? I’d like to cite Hélène Guilmette’s Sister Constance, who surpassed the usual cuteness of the part in a portrayal of genuine warmth & illuminated by something i’ll call inspiration, and Cameron McPhail, the most impressive voice of any of the men in his brief appearance.
As usual the COC Chorus were like another virtuoso singing actor on the stage, and indispensable to Carsen’s conception.
The last performance is Saturday May 25th at the Four Seasons Centre.