Francis Poulenc's "Dialogues des Carmélites" examines the role of faith in the face of a mob. It doesn't offer a happy ending, but it does provide a powerful opera experience. The current Canadian Opera Company production runs now through May 25th.
An intense work with a simple narrative, Poulenc's 1957 opera is based on a screenplay by award-winning French author Georges Bernanos, described by TIME magazine as "France's most distinguished Catholic author-and his own Church's sharpest critic." Bernanos based his work on the earlier novelSong at the Scaffold by German writer Gertrud von Le Fort. That novel itself was inspired by true events during the French Revolution, when sixteen Carmelite nuns of Compiègne were executed. Though the world Poulenc presents to us may seem as simple as the nuns' habits, it is, in fact, filled with much grey, literal and figurative -something the current Canadian Opera Company production skilfully reminds us of.
The work's central figure is Blanche de la Force (Isabel Bayrakdarian), an aristocrat who wrestles faith and fear with equal measure. When she's asked why she wants to be a nun, she replies that she would like to be heroic; by contrast, when her brother (Frédéric Antoun) comes to visit her, he notes that she sounds more scared than ever. This fear is painfully echoed at the end of Act One, when Madame de Croissy (Judith Forst), the old Prioress of the order (and, we learn, the first Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ), has a vision of their chapel's desecration and dies in doubt, believing God has forsaken the Order. Rather than soothing Blanche's fears (immediate and internal; literal and spiritual), entering the Order only more clearly outlines them, rendering those yowling ghosts of doubt in the drab, hulking shapes of the revolutionaries whom Canadian director Robert Carsen uses as set pieces in a production that beautifully balances ideas of emptiness and claustrophobia.
This claustrophobia is underlined in the first image in the opera, when a crowd surrounds Blanche, her father, and her brother, as they discuss her entering the Carmelite order. The garishness of the outfits -the Marquis de la Force (Jean-Francois Lapointe) and Chavalier de la Force (Frédéric Antoun) both wear the only bright outfits in the production -sharply contrast with the enroaching drab conformity that literally surrounds them. Carsen uses a cast of over one hundred onstage as virtual moving set pieces; as arts writer Leslie Barcza nicely puts it, "the chorus move beyond their usual role to become a major part of the mise-en-scène, a dramaturgical feature." This allows for a greater atmospheric temperature to be created through the music, conducted here with delicacy and focus by COC Music Director Johannes Debus, who pulls equal amounts of tension and tenderness from the talented COC orchestra. It's rewarding to hear them so utterly matched with the performers in big moments and small. They shine in the larger dramatic moments toward the opera's end as much as they do in the opera's first fifteen minutes, when Blanche decides to enter the Order. Such intuitive, soulful playing is a treat.
Center, L-R: Jean-François Lapointe as Marquis de la Force, Isabel Bayrakdarian as Blanche de la Force and Frédéric Antoun as Chevalier de la Force in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of "Dialogues des Carmélites", 2013.
It's during this first half of the opera that Blanche asks her brother, "Was I truly composed?" Composure -that idea of calm, of centeredness, of feeling cool and grounded -is an idea that sits at the heart of Dialogues: is Blanche composed when she decides to enter the Order? Is she composed when she lives there? Composed when faced with her own mortality? She certainly has plentiful enough reasons not to be: a disapproving family; an old Prioress who loses faith and dies in front of her; the chattering of fellow nuns. Perhaps Blanche's biggest fear is whether her faith will save her from her rabid fears, and if her death will offer no respite from their eternal torment. It's touching to see Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian wrestle with these notions in her performance; hers is a deep, heartfelt presentation that is every bit as musical as it is dramatic. She handles Poulenc's challenging vocal lines with ease and never resorts to the sort of maudlin operatic acting style that could so easily mar such a tortured role.
Bayrakdarian is matched in skill by her co-stars. Canadian mezzo-soprano Judith Forst offers a wonderfully human interpretation of the Prioress, moving in short order between authoritative, doubting, vulnerable, delicate, angry, and deeply frightened. As the Second Prioriess, Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka is all calm serenity to her charges, even as a palpable undercurrent of fear runs through her words. It's through such great performances, as well as smart lighting, set, and costumes designs here, that we are allowed an immediacy with the libretto and that gorgeous, dreamy music.
The visuals in Dialogues des Carmélites smartly integrate traditional and modern ideas; by essentially untethering the action from its time period, Carsen is able to offer a greater palette from which to draw on emotionally. Blanche's fear feels very ugly and real once the 18th century finery is stripped away. Keen costuming (by Falk Bauer) only vaguely recalls French revolutionary garb, but, blended with stark grey backdrops and moody lighting that moves between hyper-naturalistic and cinematic, makes for a piece that is both timely and timeless. Celebrated Canadian set designer Michael Levine, together with original lighting designer Jean Kalman (recreated by Cor van den Brink) and choreographer Philippe Giraudeau easily evoke the terror and confusion of the period with a zen-like approach that cleverly offers a world of nuance amidst the simplicity. Though the characters in the piece feel they're in a black-and-white world (as reflected in the nuns' garb and some simple, stark lighting), they are, in fact, surrounded by greyness; Levine's set, while simple, is awesomely powerful when paired with Kalman/den Brink's lighting in evoking the complex emotions behind the passion and fear that characterizes so much of this world. Forget Fifty Shades of Grey; this is more like one million, with BDSM this time as Blanche Dies Saved Muchly; your soul leaves bruised but happy.
A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of "Dialogues des Carmélites", 2013.
Grace is a major theme of Dialogues, just as much as fear is, and the dramatic ending -with the nuns in a beautiful chorus, their voices being silenced one by one as a guillotine sounds, is haunting, beautiful, and, here, movingly staged, with the white-garbed female cast members slowly falling and rolling onto their backs, arms outstretched, as the mob stands, lined up, with heads obscured, silently observing. Blanche materializes out of this crowd, her white tunic bringing to mind a biblical lamb, ready for slaughter. With arms and face raised, illuminated by a single light, we see Blanche, at last, composed, and full of grace.
Watching the production, I was reminded of the words of Rumi: Keep walking, though there's no place to get to.
Don't try to see through the distances.
That's not for human beings. Move within,
But don't move the way fear makes you move.
Poulenc asks us to consider if we, in fact, move this way, or if we, like Blanche, come to a place past all fear. Can we be "truly composed?" Can we move into a state of grace? Dialogues des Carmélites offers no easy answers, but it does provide some beautiful clues; it's to the COC's credit they, simply and elegantly, ask us to follow them.