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Opera review: The deep, dark seductions of Canadian Opera Company's Dialogues des carmélites

By John Terauds on May 8, 2013

(Michael Cooper photo).
The Carmelite nuns prepare for their demise at the Four Seasons Centre on Wednesday night (Michael Cooper photo).

Faith, fear and martyrdom form the portal into a deeply satisfying tragedy carefully manipulated in music by Francis Poulenc and in staging by Toronto-born Robert Carsen in the Canadian Opera Company’s final production of the season, Dialogues des carmélites.

First seen at La Scala in Milan in 1957, this opera is a masterpiece of dramatic tension held together by seductive music that is as precise as a stopwatch yet as gently undulating as a treetop in a gentle breeze.

The central characters are all women, bound together by their holy vows, but separated by their individual journeys which all end at the guillotine in revolutionary France.

Carsen has allowed the women to speak (I mean sing) through Poulenc’s spare yet sensual score, working through a staging that is equally ascetic.

Designer Michael Levine has pared the stage itself down to an unadorned box, with a silent crowd of witnesses frequently looking on from the sidelines, effectively making up a human set in the process.

There isn’t a single superfluous theatrical gesture here. The stark lighting by Jean Kalman and Cor van der Brink and associated shadow work provide all the visual underlining we need.

All of the singers were excellent at Wednesday’s opening performance at the Four Seasons Centre. Particular nods go to Judith Forst’s searing portrayal of the dying prioress, Madame de Croissy, Adrianne Pieczonka’s strong-but-maternal Madame Lidoine, Isabel Bayrakdarian’s innocent Blanche, Hélène Guilmette’s chirpy Sister Constance and Irina Mishura’s affecting Mother Marie.

The men have small roles, all done nicely. And the silent supernumeraries deserve kudos for their ability to stand still or provide tightly choreographed, slight body motions over prolonged periods.

COC music director Johannes Debus fully captured the sensuality of Poulenc’s music — occasionally a bit too much so, swamping some sung passages with orchestral swells.

This is a production that does everything opera should, transporting its audience to another time and place, and making us confront the essentials of life, with an absolute minimum of means.

This is great art. Pure and simple.

Dialogues des carmélites runs to May 25. Details here.

John Terauds

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