Opera tackles brutality inflicted upon Carmelites

  • May 4, 2013

TORONTO - The Canadian Opera Company is delving into the turmoil of the French Revolution to tell the story of a group of Carmelite nuns who face death, and how they must rely on their faith in order to accept the horror of their situation to find peace.

Dialogues des Carmélites, written by Francois Poulenc in 1956, is being staged May 8-25 at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, and tells the story of the Carmelites as they are persecuted for practising their faith during this turbulent period in French history.

While the COC has staged Dialogues before, this production, directed by Robert Carsen, boasts an all-star cast. International star, soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, plays Blanche de la Force, a young noblewoman who eschews her birthright of privilege to enter the Carmelite order, and accept the Carmelite life of prayerful simplicity and their ultimate demise. Mezzo-soprano Judith Forst plays the elderly prioress Croissy who accepts Blanche, while soprano Adrianne Pieczonka plays Madame Lidoine who takes over the mantle of prioress after Croissy’s death in Act I. The opera is based on historical events surrounding Carmelite nuns in Compiegne, northern France, during the Revolution.

“We did this first in Amsterdam in 1997, and it was my suggestion to the director of the opera house there that we do it. I’ve always loved this piece, and I’ve always wanted to direct it,” said Carsen.

“I love Poulenc’s music… it’s such an unusual and moving subject for an opera, and the circumstances of Poulenc’s life (as he was writing it) are also extremely moving.”

Musically, Poulenc’s score is remarkably simple, in the most wonderful sense of the word, and its effect is deeply evocative. It is fundamentally conversational, and relies intrinsically on the reactions of the cast members to one another. Doing away with the dramatic arias and choruses that are characteristic of most traditional opera, Poulenc instead scored ensemble numbers based on traditional Church prayers in Latin, such as “Ave Maria” and the opera’s profoundly climactic finale, “Salve Regina,” in which the nuns make their final walk to the guillotine.

“Here we have women who are the victims of revolution and incomprehension and violence,” said Carsen. “The fact of the matter is that we are all going to face our own death at one moment or another… that is why this piece is so moving.

“The way Poulenc has composed the final scene based on this historical document that Mother Marie (who was not guillotined with the sisters) has written down, has (the sisters brought) through into the Place de Liberté… and they were singing, and of course the crowd fell silent. This shouting, screaming crowd fell silent as they heard these women who were so dignified.”

Forst (an acclaimed veteran of the operatic stage) has performed Dialogues des Carmélites many times now, and sung two other roles besides the old prioress. This is her second production of the opera with Carsen.

“It was very interesting not only from a musical point of view, but from a character point of view because all of these women have different approaches and attitudes throughout the opera,” said Forst.

Indeed, the opera is a powerful study in not only the life-anddeath situation of the nuns, but also of the profound effect of faith amid the tribulations of life.

“The Croissy conflict is that all her life (she has taken) the vow of prayer and that you put your fate in the hands of God and you will be looked after,” said Forst.

“When she is in extreme pain and in the last hours, she loses her faith because she didn’t think, I guess, that the pain would be what it is.”

One of the crucial themes that the opera presents, said Forst, is the exploration “of different people’s faith and what it means, and what they thought it meant, and what it really means to them when they’re in extreme situations.”

Unlike standard operatic fare that many patrons would more readily associate with the genre, the thematic develop of Dialogues is unique in its execution.

“The whole question of opera is always about eros and thanatos and usually about love and death, but the love usually involves some sort of erotic relationship, if you like,” said Carsen.

“But here, love and death are both present but in completely unusual ways. The passion that is normally developed in operatic subject is developed in a completely different way of course.”

For Forst, in order to fully embrace and understand her role, it was important to visit Carmelite convents in order to gain the enlightenment needed to play Croissy.

“It’s more to get the feeling of simplicity, and how dependent they are, really, on other people for their donations and living,” said Forst.

“They do really live this life of prayer. The conversations that they have are consumed with what prayer can do and what their place in reality is.”

The opera, though propelled by a plot saturated with Catholic history and values contains themes that can speak on all levels to all audience members. Carsen, along with set designer Michael Levine, has designed a production that is almost stark in its display and avoids any sort of affectation.

“I thought it was not a good idea to have any kind of religious object on the stage. Very easily, on the opera stage, big religious symbols (like) crucifixes, crosses and other elements to do with religion become kitsch and theatrical and not at all to do with what we want here,” said Carsen.

“Except for the rosaries,” he added. “Of course the Carmelite costumes are correctly made with the right materials and everything; quite heavy wool actually.”

Ultimately, Dialogues des Carmélites transcends the temporal horror of the nuns’ fate and presents a reality that is at its essence powerful and beautiful.

“The whole point to me, and what I hear in Poulenc’s music… is that the women are no longer on the Earth — they’re on their way somewhere else; they have already gone to that place inside them,” said Carsen.

“I describe what we’ve done more as a dance toward the light, really.”

For tickets and more information on Dialogues des Carmélites, visit www.coc.ca.

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