DIALOGUES DES CARMELITES by Francis Poulenc (Canadian Opera Company). At the Four Seasons Centre (145 Queen West). Runs to May 25, May 14, 17, 21 and 23 at 7:30 pm, May 19 at 2 pm, May 25 at 4:30 pm. $12-$325, rush seats $22, standing room $12. 416-363-8231. See listing. Rating: NNNNN
The action in Francis Poulenc's 1957 opera Dialogues Des Carmélites occurs as much internally as externally, as much about the growth of the spirit as with events in the everyday world.
At its centre is Blanche de la Force (Isabel Bayrakdarian), a naïve French aristocrat who enters the Carmelite order to escape her fear of life. Of course, her terrors follow her, not only on a personal level but also as her sister nuns find their faith tested in a clash with the ruthless powers of the French Revolution.
In the hands of director Robert Carsen, conductor Johannes Debus and an exciting, mostly female cast, the COC staging is a world-class production, emotionally and psychologically astute.
Instead of a realistic period production, Carsen, set designer Michael Levine - a duo whose collaborations never falter - and fellow designers Falk Bauer (costumes), Jean Kalman and Cor van den Brink (lighting) devise a largely abstract, suggestive staging played out against huge, dark walls that allow no escape for the dwarfed figures in front of them. In their hands, Dialogues is a drama of light and shadow, white and black.
Using few props, they rely instead on a mass of anonymous revolutionaries to bring in the encroaching Terror. The team focuses on the human element of the story, the decision of how to live one's life and, finally, how to let go of it.
Poulenc's spare score really is a series of dialogues and conversations, both with oneself and others; it can shift from understated string scoring to full-out bursts of brass and percussion in a single line of text.
There are no big arias and the only choral numbers are the composer's setting of various Latin church texts. And if the work seems at times to offer philosophical musings rather than an involving story, it builds to one of the most extraordinary final scenes in opera, to which Carsen gives an extra emotional twist.
The fine cast is crowned by four first-rate performances, beginning with Judith Forst, riveting as the old, dying prioress who takes Blanche into the order, and Adrianne Pieczonka as her successor, a common woman of uncommon faith who brings a different kind of simple humanity to the order.
Hélène Guilmette defines Constance, Blanche's sister novice, with a honeyed voice and equally sweet temperament. A chirpy, upbeat village girl who sees God's plan in all things, she's the perfect counterpart to Bayrakdarian's fearful Blanche.
Easily scared by a shadow and forever guilt-ridden over both what she's done and what she hasn't done, Blanche admits she doesn't know how to live in the world. In one of her most emotionally committed roles, Bayrakdarian lives the part, even - maybe especially - in her dying moments.
One of the COC's best productions.