Canadian Opera’s ‘Carmelites’ Solid In Theater Values

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Canadian Opera Company’s production of Dialogues des Carmélites, directed by Robert Carsen and designed by Michael Levine
‘Dialogues des Carmélites,’ directed by Robert Carsen, designed by Michael Levine (Michael Cooper/Canadian Opera Co.)
By Colin Eatock

TORONTO — On Saturday night, May 11, I was at the Four Seasons Centre to see the Canadian Opera Company‘s current staging of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. Directed and designed by Canadians Robert Carsen and Michael Levine, respectively, it’s a thought-provoking production. And one of the many things I found myself thinking about, as I left the theatre, was the term “production values.”

The phrase is much bandied-about in the opera world. Often, it simply means that a lot of money was conspicuously spent. In this sense, “high production values” is an economic term, referring to the use of expensive scenery, costumes, lighting and stage equipment.

By these standards, the COC’s Carmelites has rather low production values. At first glance, it looks simply threadbare: a minimalist, black-box staging designed to cut costs. Move along, people – nothing to see here.

Grand starkness marks the COC design. (Michael Cooper)
Grand starkness, ritualized staging marks COC production. (Michael Cooper)

But I’d like to suggest another sense in which the term “production values” could and should be used. Is it not apt to employ the phrase to refer to a production’s artistic values? And if those values are clear, insightful, and compelling– and thoughtfully worked into every aspect of the piece – don’t they add up to high production values?

By these standards, this Carmelites has very high production values. With this poised and ritualized staging, Carsen has created a poetic theatrical experience. As well, the grand starkness of Levine’s design focuses attention on significant details: the bed of flowers on the Old Prioress’s grave, or the accidental breaking of the Christ King statue.

That said, such a sparse production must rely heavily on its cast, if it is to succeed. Fortunately, the COC brought together a convent full of impressive female singers. And in some cases, the company didn’t have to search far afield to find what it was looking for.

Isabel Bayrakdarian as Blanche de la Force (Chris Hutcheson)
Isabel Bayrakdarian as Blanche (Chris Hutcheson)

Toronto-based Isabel Bayrakdarian is an ideal Blanche de la Force. Her voice has a youthful fragility well suited to the timid Blanche, but also the strength and tension necessary to carry this opera to its fateful conclusion. As well, there was a fluid and natural parlando quality permeating her performance – just what’s needed for this score.

Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, singing the role of Madame Lidoine, is another cast member who lives a subway ride away from the theatre. A soprano associated with big-voiced dramatic roles, she adapted herself admirably to Poulenc’s lyrical style. At times there were flashes of polished steel in her performance – but always there was a purpose to it, as in her Act II scene when Madame Lidoine displays strong leadership in troubled times.

Soprano Hélène Guilmette brought a suitably light and perky delivery to the role of Sister Constance. And it was worth the price of admission just to see and hear mezzo Judith Forst’s intense portrayal of the Old Prioress. Soprano Irina Mishura’s vocal warmth, as Mother Marie, was another welcome contribution.

Judith Forst as Madame de Croissy (Michael Cooper)
Judith Forst as Madame de Croissy (Michael Cooper)

By comparison, the men were generally unremarkable. While this is very much a “women’s opera,” there would have been nothing wrong with a little more dramatic and vocal conviction from Frédéric Antoun as Blanche’s brother or Michael Colvin as the Chaplain. The only man on stage who rose above mere adequacy was baritone Peter Barrett, as the stern Jailer.

In the pit, the COC Orchestra was up to its usual high standards. However, it seemed that conductor Johannes Debus chose to approach the orchestral score largely as a support for the vocal artistry on stage. As a result, he sometimes held his instrumental forces in check when he might have used them to greater effect.

It never ceases to amaze me that Francis Poulenc – whose music is so often sunny and cheerful – could have composed something like Carmelites. (But, as they say in England, “There it is.”) With this production, the COC has embraced the multi-layered aspects of this deceptively complex opera – mapping a path to the heart of the work.

Colin Eatock is a critic and composer who lives in Toronto. His latest book, Remembering Glenn Gould, was published by Penumbra Press in 2012.

© Colin Eatock 2013. This review originally appeared in the author’s website and is reprinted here with his permission.

(l – r) Hélène Guilmette  as Sister Constance and Isabel Bayrakdarian as Blanche de la Force in Dialogues des Carmélites (Michael Cooper)
Hélène Guilmette as Sister Constance and Isabel Bayrakdarian as Blanche de la Force (Michael Cooper)