Dialogues des Carmelites, on the stage of COC this spring, is a piece of spellbinding beauty, and a roaring success. Every element of this production is perfect in itself and perfectly fitting into the whole. Three world-renowned Canadian artists, director Robert Carsen and the two sopranos Isabel Bayrakdarian and Adriane Pieczonka took part in this production.
The key character of this opera is Blanche, a daughter of the Marquis de la Force. At the time of the French Revolution Blanche is a young woman. She fears the uncertainties of the volatile and merciless world outside her home, and the home is no longer a safe place. From the violence of life she seeks refuge in religion by becoming a nun in a Carmelite convent.
The Carmelites are a mendicant order devoted to prayer and contemplation. The life within the convent soon reveals to Blanche that prayer and contemplation may not deliver salvation. Madame De Croissy, the prioress of the convent, who has devoted every day of her life to contemplating death is old and undergoing a slow agony. She is surrounded by the loving care of her nuns. Yet she is dying in anguish, absorbed by fear and panic. Seeking refuge from the outside life is not enough; Blanche has to face the fear of death. In accepting her fate to be executed with the other nuns, Blanche finds her peace by discovering in her own death the salvation that lies only within.
Depicting the fearful yet determined character of young Blanche caught in a whirlwind of sweeping historical changes, Isabel Bayrakdarian uncovered a shimmering yet piercing layer in her singing which I have not noticed before. Adriane Pieczonka with the dark and firm hue of her voice gave the role of the succeeding prioress Madame Lidoine the convincing calm of a mature, grounded woman.
Judith Forst, with her exceptional dramatic power touches the peaks of the emotional agony of the dying prioress in all the right moments and measures. She brought to life the character of Madame De Croissy in full flavours. Jean-François Lapointe, a Quebec-born baritone, has that creamy aspect in his voice that is a right match for the role of the Marquis de la Force, Blanche’s father.
The collaboration among director Robert Carsen, set designer Michael Levine, costume designer Falk Bauer, choreographer Philippe Giraudeau, and light designer Jean Kalman re-created for this production by Cor van den Brink, produced a coherent, smooth and effortless unfolding of this story from the beginning to the end.
The COC orchestra with Johanes Debus rendered the score with an emphasis on forcefulness as the underlying atmosphere of revolution, while eloquently expressing musical phrases, thereby revealing the influence of Stravinsky and Wagner.
Francis Poulenc himself lived most of his life in the historically turbulent time of two world wars and the communist revolution. He also suffered the death of several close friends and partners. The libretto is based on a novel by Gertrude von le Fort, written in 1931 and inspired by the actual execution of 16 nuns during the Reign of Terror. Even though Poulenc’s association with the surrealist movement marks a great deal of his works, this opera, composed only 57 years ago, rests mainly on the musical tradition that preceded his century.