Thursday, May 9, 2013

Review: (Toronto) Dialogues des Carmélites

Adrianne Pieczonka (centre) photo: Michael Cooper

Blinded by the light
by Shannon Christy

As fans of Gothic architecture know, the best-preserved cathedral in Paris is la Sainte Chapelle. This is mainly because during the Revolution it was used as a stable and the straw used to feed the horses worked as an excellent tool to preserve the interior paint. Thus in the Revolution’s attempt to discredit and destroy the past they inadvertently preserved it.

Dialogues des Carmélites is similar in its story of a Chapter of nuns located in France during the Revolution. The story’s central character, Blanche (played by Isabel Bayrakdarian) is a young woman scared of her own shadow who finds comfort in the monastic life. She then manages to ignore, or maybe overcome her fear in order to spend eternity with her fellow Carmélites.

This is a simple story with interesting, subtle twists that makes no attempts at cajoling the audience with sentimentality or explanation; as when, at one pivotal point, all of the sisters make a sudden and dreadful vow while the Second Prioress (Adrianne Pieczonka) is away.

As Madame de Croissy, the First Prioress, Ms. Forst was simply brilliant. Thrillingly brilliant.

The music seems straight out of a Hitchcock film.  It is a deliberate mixture of romanticism and 20th century abstraction and seamlessly takes us through this challenging intellectual endeavour.  For example, at the end of the second act as the First Prioress (Judith Forst) loses her faith as death approaches and disavows God only to be ignored by her order the music rips and tears with dissonant chords before returning to a melody that suggests a return to the routine of the order. The music (Francis Poulenc) is mentally, spiritually, and emotionally chilling.  Conductor Johannes Debus does another outstanding job carrying the tempo forward though at times the volume of the orchestra drowns out the vocal performances, and in particular the few male performances.

As Madame de Croissy, the First Prioress, Ms. Forst was simply brilliant. Thrillingly brilliant. Her vocals, and their ability to resonate through her harrowing demise, conveyed authentic and riveting emotions that were not present anywhere else in the show. Her anger and confusion burn straight into your soul, which is not to take away from the other performances; but Ms. Forst was simply outstanding.

Whether conveying the passage of time, or enlightment, or being used to build a wall, or setting the mood for the minimalist scenery, the lighting of Cor van den Brink adds beautiful, subtle depths to the provocatively bare design chosen by director Robert Carsen. The set by Michael Levine is deliberately bleak with brilliant, meaningful contrasts that add to this already spiritually charged piece.  For instance, right after the death of the First Prioress two novices have to watch over her corpse, which is covered in an immaculate white shroud.  At one point Blanche is alone. She hesitates and then removes the shroud only to reveal a beautiful arrangement of flowers in full bloom instead of a corpse. Not to mention the ending envisioned by Mr. Carsen:  a visual and emotional bliss, as dark as it can get which makes one consider the after-death, one’s spiritual strength and faith or lack thereof and so reviving a spiritual connection the Revolution worked so hard to eradicate.

This is a stark opera with rich music and deliberately simplistic dialogue meant to provoke thought. It is another outstanding production presented by the Canadian Opera Company but this particular show only has you covered until the 25th of May.


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