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Simply marvelous

The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
05/08/2013 -  & May 11, 14, 17, 19. 21, 23, 25, 2013
Francis Poulenc: Dialogues des Carmélites
Isabel Bayrakdarian (Blanche de la Force), Judith Forst (Madame de la Croissy), Adrianne Pieczonka (Madame Lidoine), Irina Mishura (Mother Marie), Hélène Guilmette (Sister Constance), Jean-François Lapointe (Marquis de la Force), Frédéric Antoun (Chevalier de la Force), Doug MacNaughton (Thierry, Monsieur Javelinot), Michael Colvin (Chaplin), Rihab Chaieb (Sister Mathilde), Megan Latham (Mother Jeanne), Christopher Enns (First Commissioner), Evan Boyer (Second Commissioner), Cameron McPhail (Officer), Claire de Sévigné (A Voice), Peter Barrett (Jailer)
The Canadian Opera Company Chorus, Sandra Horst (Chorus Master), The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Johannes Debus (Conductor)
Robert Carsen (Director), Michael Levine (Set Designer), Falk Bauer (Costume Designer), Philippe Giraudeau (Choreographer), Jean Kalman (Lighting Designer)

A. Pieczonka (centre) (© Michael Cooper)

Robert Carsen and Michael Levine have devised a subtly beautiful production of Poulenc’s 1957 masterpiece that is fully in keeping with the understated eloquence of its music and dramaturgy.

The beginning of the performance employs a technique (if that’s the right word) used for Wagner’s Parsifal: the conductor enters a darkened pit and there is none of the conventional welcoming applause. The lights go up and we are greeted with a stark stage empty but for 16 nun’s habits laid out on the floor. The stage remains so bare one almost wonders what set designer Michael Levine actually did. What turns out to be the main scenic element is a roughly-dressed mob composed of the chorus (44 members) and 100 extras, the largest number ever used in a COC production. The mob shifts and flows, revealing changed scenes and allowing central characters to melt into the background or mysteriously emerge from it.

Different scenes are indicated by the placement of simple props. When Sister Constance refers to her iron, there really is an iron. With such a design concept the lighting scheme is more crucial than usual; Jean Kalman’s design, re-created by Cor van den Brink, adds its share of subtle magic.

The simplicity of the setting probably helps the audience sort out the various nuns who are (as required) dressed more-or-less alike. I’ve always had trouble sorting out Madame Lidoine and Mother Marie, the two dominant nuns of Acts II and III; at any rate, both Adrianne Pieczonka and Irina Mishura are in great form.

The music makes no extreme stylistic demands on the singers but adroit casting still pays off, and once again COC General Director Alexander Neef and his staff have come up trumps. A notable local debut is made by Hélène Guilmette as the chatterbox Sister Constance. The esteemed Judith Forst (who made her COC debut in 1972) is properly harrowing as the dying Madame de Croissy. All but two of the solo roles are played by Canadian singers, by the way.
(One minor cavil: at times some singers are kept rather far upstage and as a result audibility is a problem.)

The final scene, which calls for the off-stage beheading of the 16 nuns, is staged with a stand-in-place gestural choreography. As the unseen guillotine blade descends (to a creepily effective crunching sound generated by a synthesizer) the nun who stops singing floats gently to the floor. The effect is that of a soul released from the body. The nuns are in white shifts and at the end the stage is strewn with shapeless white forms, a visual echo of the opening scene.

Orchestra and chorus fully display the fine results of the company’s usual careful preparation.

This production brings back memories of Carsen’s magisterial Orfeo ed Euridice performed here two years ago. It also makes for an interesting comparison with the COC’s current production of Salome where one is so bombarded with extraneous visuals that it becomes a struggle to maintain focus on the central drama. How vastly more effective is paring the work to its essence.

This well-traveled production got its start in Amsterdam in 1997 and has been seen at La Scala, Nice, and Chicago’s Lyric Opera. Its travels aren’t over, however, as it will be presented at London’s Royal Opera House in May and June 2014.

Michael Johnson



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