Archive for May, 2013

Dialogues des Carmelites – a great performance

May 12, 2013


 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

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

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.  


Irina Mishura (back to camera) as Mother Marie and Judith Forst as Madame de Croissy  Photo: Michael Cooper

Irina Mishura (back to camera) as Mother Marie and Judith Forst as Madame de Croissy
Photo: Michael Cooper

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.

Salome at the COC

May 3, 2013
Erika Sunnegårdh as Salome and Nathaniel Peake as Narraboth. Photo: Michael Cooper

Erika Sunnegårdh as Salome and Nathaniel Peake as Narraboth. Photo: Michael Cooper

A hundred and eight years ago Richard Strauss’s Salome was premiered in Dresden followed by 38 curtain bows. Shortly thereafter it was staged in fifty other theatres across Europe. At the Austrian première in Graz 1906, in the audience were Alban Berg, Giacomo Puccini and Gustav Mahler. The libretto is based on an Oscar Wilde play which inspired Strauss to write this opera. It is a biblical story about the death of John the Baptist in the captivity of Herod, the Roman governor of Judea.

A renowned Canadian film director, Atom Egoyan, directed the Richard Strauss’s Salome which was performed this season at the COC. In this biblical story of degenerate mores, princess Salome attempts to seduce Jochanaan, John the Baptist, who is held in the captivity of her stepfather Herod. Salome seduces the guard to bring the prisoner Jochanaan. She tries to seduce Jochanaan to kiss her. Failing to arouse any interest from the imprisoned prophet, the princess goes back to the banquet in Herod’s garden and agrees to perform the Dance of the Seven Veils for her lustful stepfather, on condition that he fulfill her wish.  She demands the severed head of Jochanaan to be delivered to her on a silver platter. Herod, although disgusted over such an idea, cannot retract on his promise. Seeing Salome fondling the severed head, Herod, in profound disgust, shrieks and declares her mad and fit for Sodom and Gomorrah, summoning the guards to kill Salome. The guards follow the order.

Herod, his wife and Salome abide in their quarters dressed in casual bathrobes.  A lack of splendour and signs of neglect in the bare garden of Herod, combined with the grey and green lighting, hint at the decay and disorder that must accompany such abominable deeds. Combining video projections and a theatre of shadows with the classical stage set, the story unfolds with coherence, but remains within the realm of the conventional. Yet the conventional cannot be at par with this shocking story and dramatic extremes of music delivered by the superb orchestra under conductor Johanes Debus.

In a Met production of Salome with Karita Matilla in the title role, her drunken dance delivers the true degenerate madness that carries the weight of this whole unhinged story. This production is short of this anchoring point. It is not enough that Herod is attending his garden party dressed in a wife-beater and pajamas under his orange bathrobe.  His lust and titillation are meek and pale.  For this magnitude of the abominable, the set and costumes appear as too conventional. The most revolting point in this opera should not be a princess kissing the severed head on the platter, but something that inevitably leads to it. 

Dance of the Seven Veils scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Salome, 2013. Photo: Michael Cooper

Dance of the Seven Veils scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Salome, 2013. Photo: Michael Cooper

Swedish-American soprano Erika Sunnagårdh as Salome has more than the required strength in her upper register for this role. Ms. Sunnagårdh delivered a superb performance. Richard Maragison as Herod was impressive in delivering transition from the anesthetized hedonistic boredom towards the agonizing despair of decision making in commanding the execution of the stepdaughter he adores. Martin Gantner, although vocally equal to the task, sang the role of John the Baptist with a stamina and resoluteness more suitable for a guerrilla-fighter than a prophet, having no compassion or forgiveness for the fallen woman.

Despite all these objections, the performance is a success, most notably for the singers and the orchestra.