Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Twilight of the Soul: Robert Carsen’s Dialogues des Carmélites at the Canadian Opera Company

Adrianne Pieczonka (centre) and members of the COC in Dialogues des Carmélites (All photos by Michael Cooper)

Dialogues des Carmélites, which the Canadian Opera Company is performing at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts now through May 25, is an impressive theatrical creation. Sobering and meditative are words that also come to mind in describing it. Despite an outstanding predominately female cast and conductor Johannes Debus' firm grasp of Francis Poulenc's mercurial score, an evening’s diversion it is not. There is no romance here. No spectacular effects. Like its Revolutionary setting, Dialogues is dark and brooding. No tra-la-la among the tra-la-las.

Poulenc’s 1957 opera, as its title suggests, is fundamentally a conversation involving nuns from the Order of the Catholic Church said to be under the protection of the Virgin Mary. As might be expected in such a sacred sisterhood, the conversations touch on the power of faith. But they also explore fear and doubt, emotions triggered in large part by the opera being set in Paris during the Reign of Terror.

Poulenc, who composed what he considered his best work in the middle of the 20th century, looks back at that bloody time in French history and sees it as a crucible of the soul, an open vessel where life’s impurities combine with the chaste (and the holy Immaculate) to create a crisis of identity. This lack of certainty in both the political and spiritual realms of human existence is a theme which director Robert Carsen masterfully explores in his version of the Dialogues which he and fellow Canadian, the set designer Michael Levine, originally created in 1997 for Amsterdam’s Nederlandse Opera.

Irina Mishura and Isabel Bayrakdarian
Carsen, with Levine’s expert help, depicts the anarchy pummelling the sisters both inside and outside their convent walls as an absence of light and spatial freedom. The vast stage of the Four Seasons Centre is mostly empty and dark throughout the more than two hours this spare and blunt re-mounting of the Dialogues treads the floorboards. There are no real sets to speak of. A chair and a few stark wooden benches and tables which are easily moved on and off the stage to define scenes are among the only props. The biggest stage device, and the one making the biggest visual impact, is a large crowd of men and women, dressed in the greys, blacks and browns of an angry rabble. Carsen uses the crowd to frame the main action and also, tellingly, to cut it off at the throat.

Carsen opens his production with this throng staring menacingly out at the audience before parting, like a curtain, to reveal an aristocrat (Quebec baritone Jean-François Lapointe) in his brilliant silks conversing with great agitation with his son (French-Canadian tenor Frédéric Antoun) about how the mob in question has them worried, if not deathly afraid, for their safety. Later on, during the nuns’ persecution, this phalanx of the proletariat stands shoulder-to-shoulder, in the wings, quietly yet disturbingly watching. Their faces are obscured by a scrim to make them appear, quite literally, a nameless mob. It is a brilliant bit of stagecraft and it shows why Carsen is justifiably considered one of the best opera directors today.

This notion of a bleak and terrifying world is in Poulenc’s original version. It is said that the composer created it during a time in his life when he also was staring death in the face. His lover was dying, and Poulenc wrote in despair. From his pen flowed a black and white world, graphically symbolized by the unyielding black and white habits worn by the nuns. And yet, the Dialogues isn't that simplistic. The opera isn't about good versus evil, with both sides clearly defined. Poulenc muddies the black and the white in his opera, having a Revolutionary show kindness to the nuns, for instance, while the nuns themselves express moments of profound doubt and moral weakness. The Carmelites have their own demons to contend with.

The central character is a young aristocratic woman named Blanche de la Force, which can be translated from the French to mean the strength of white, or the power of purity. While the story of the Carmelites during the French Revolution is rooted in historical fact, the figure of Blanche is a fictional creation born of the imagination of Gertrud von Le Fort, a German convert to Catholicism who wrote The Last to the Scaffold, the 1931 novel on which Poulenc based his opera.

Judith Forst as Madame de Croissy
Blanche is a problematic character, only very late living up to the piety of her name. As portrayed by the incredibly evocative Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, a homegrown superstar, Blanche is riddled with human frailties. She is afraid of everything, even her own shadow, and retreats to a convent not entirely as an act of faith but as an act of escape from the harsh realities of her own world. She doesn’t find solace inside those stone walls. Shortly after her arrival to the order of the Carmelites, she confesses her fear of death to Sister Constance (Canadian soprano Hélène Guilmette) and is jealous when Sister Constance, who is comfortable in her own skin, shows a fortitude that Blanche can as yet only dream of for herself.

But Blanche isn’t the only sister experiencing a twilight of the soul. The Mother Superior is dyingterriblyof some undisclosed disease. The legendary Canadian mezzo-soprano Judith Forst attacks this existentialist role with a vengeance, screaming out in fear and anger, forsaking her God. It’s a shocking ending to what was supposed to be a quiet life of prayer and it makes Mother Marie, charged by the dying Mother with caring for the timid Blanche in her absence, recoil. Performed by the formidable Russian soprano Irina Mishura, Marie forbids the other nuns to visit the Mother Superior in her sick bed, fearing that their own faith will be weakened.

But Marie needn’t have worried. The nuns collectively agree to sacrifice themselves to the Revolution as an act of faith. Consoling them through their ordeal is Madame Lidoine, the Second Prioress, majestically performed by Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka. Her honeyed voice is their balm. Blanche is not among them. She has fled the convent, returning to her aristocratic family home only to find it in ruin, her father executed by the Revolutionaries. She again flees, and the audience doesn’t see where she runs to, or what she encounters. But ultimately, Blanche returns to the sisterhood and takes her place among them, willing herself to become a martyr, too.

The ending is powerful, rendered symbolically through a hauntingly beautiful choreographed dance for the upper body. But it is also vaguely dissatisfying. Poulenc, and by extension Carsen, doesn’t show or explain what made Blanche finally able to conquer her fears. This is the opera’s main flaw.

We don’t know. Or is that the point? Maybe we are not meant to know. Maybe we, like the Carmelites, are meant just to have faith. The how and why of things are God’s business.

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. Her first book, Paris Times Eight, is a national best-seller. Her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, has just been published by Greystone Books (D&M Books). Check out for book and event updates.

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