Jean-François Lapointe as Marquis de la Force, Isabel Bayrakdarian as Blanche de la
Force and Frédéric Antoun as Chevalier de la Force. Photo: Michael Cooper
Reviewed by James Karas
Can you stage a full-length opera with (almost) as few props as an armchair, a white sheet and a few benches? Robert Carsen can and did in his minimalist production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites for Amsterdam’s De Nederlandse Opera back in 1997. Some sixteen years later, the Canadian Opera Company has, sensibly and astutely, brought that production to Toronto.
Carsen and Set Designer Michael Levine manage to give us a visually stunning production despite and because of their minimalist approach. The opera, for example, opens in the aristocratic home of the Marquis de la Force (Jean-Francois Lapointe) but the first thing we see when the curtain goes up is a number of nun’s habits arranged like crucifixes on the stage floor. It is an arresting sight.
Then a mob enters in a menacing fashion and they leave a small square space in which the Marquis appears sitting in an armchair. Four liveried servants stand at each corner of the square as if guarding the Marquis and the performance proceeds from there. The nuns’ habits and the mob are ideas of the director.
There are a number of extraordinary stage effects like that. In the third act, the Chevalier de la Force (Frederic Antoun) goes to the convent where his sister Blanche (Isabel Bayrakdarian) is a nun to ask her to return to her house. Carsen has the other nuns lined up across the stage like a wall separating the siblings. An ordinary scene is turned into something extraordinary.
Finally, in the closing moments of the opera when the nuns are being guillotined, there is no guillotine on stage and we only see them fall to the ground. They are wearing white gowns this time as compared to the black habits that we saw in the opening scene. Blanche, the heroine of the opera, is supposed to be executed as well but she simply raises her arms in the air, the spotlight shines on her and we have an arresting vision of death and transfiguration.
You cannot ask more from a director and a designer than to provide an original interpretation without resorting to gimmicks or outlandish tricks.
The striking visual effects are matched by mostly outstanding vocal performances. Soprano Bayrakdarian is Blanche, the daughter of an aristocrat who joins the Carmelite convent and grows spiritually into a martyr. I saw her perform this role in Chicago in 2007 in the same Carsen production and she was magnificent. Nothing has changed.
Soprano Hélène Guilmette plays Sister Constance like a soubrette at the beginning in nice contrast to Blanche. She exudes optimism and has a lovely voice. However, she too matures and is the one who triggers the martyrdom of Blanche.
Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka as Madame Lidoine and mezzo soprano Judith Forst as the First Prioress gave polished, dramatic and praiseworthy performances.
Poulenc’s score has numerous musical exclamation marks where there is a sudden burst of music. This tended to drown out some of the singers including Lapointe and Antoun. Initially I thought that they simply did not have enough vocal power but that did not seem to be the case. It was probably a case of poor balancing between pit and stage. Not a major problem but noticeable nevertheless.
The COC Orchestra under Johannes Debus played Poulenc’s richly textured score quite marvelously.
Dialogues des Carmélites by Francis Poulenc opened on May 8 and will be performed eight times on various dates until May 25, 2013 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671. www.coc.ca