REVIEW: Opera Meets Stark Reality; Dialogues des carmélites

Posted by Wayves Volunteer 14/08/2013

By Hugo Dann

In a time of violent social upheaval, the members of an ancient religious community, dedicated to prayer as an act of compassion, see the values they’ve nurtured for centuries turned upside down. Their social order, their culture, their very existence seem poised on the brink of extinction. They must determine, individually and as a collective, what their faith requires them in response to the suffering they see all around them. Yet even their own spiritual leaders are divided on what’s the right course of action. Sounds like a wonderfully dramatic plot for an opera, doesn’t it?

On July 20, 2013, as LGBTQ Haligonians were getting ready to kick off Pride Week, a young monk named Kunchok Sonam set himself on fire as a protest against the Chinese occupation of his Tibetan homeland. He was just 18 years old. His was the 22nd such protest by suicide in Tibet, this year.

French composer Francis Poulenc sets his opera Les Dialogues des carmélites during the French Revolution. A cloistered community of Carmelite nuns must face the situation described above. The comparison with the Buddhist monks and nuns in Tibet is an apt one on both a political and philosophical level. In the first dialogue, a young novice admires the detachment from life achieved by the nuns. The Prioress cautions her that one can fall in love with one’s own detachment, which is of course an attachment; a Buddhist expression of Catholic doctrine, or vice versa?

My one significant regret about the Halifax Summer Opera Workshop (HSOW)’s production is their decision to present it in French, rather than the English translation supervised by Poulenc himself. This is very much an opera of ideas, structured around a series of philosophical dialogues; one would like to follow them in all their compexity. These aren’t dry or lifeless discussions, the actions up for debate are literally decisions of life and death for the characters. 

The primary goal of HSOW is not the perfect staging of opera, but rather the professional development of young singers. It is an intensive four week master-class. Nevertheless, presenting works in performance (with workshop-style production values) is a key component of the program, and (I suspect) one that makes it extremely attractive to the budding operatic stars who flock to Halifax from across North America to take part. With three operas being rehearsed and presented in a four-week time span, time itself becomes an obstacle for the directors to overcome. 

Edward Franko is to be commended for his largely successful staging of Les Dialogues.He eschews a period setting for a contemporary one, and manages it quite well. An aristocrat enters haltingly, using a metal walker, as if the collapse of the social order has crippled him physically and emotionally. The prioress meets her death in a modern, if rudimentary, infirmary.  

The locales, indicated through lighting and a few set pieces, are not as well defined as they might have been, but most of his directorial choices are bold and effective. Breaking the proscenium and having his actors enter and even sing from the audience is particularly successful. His attention to the acting pays off superbly for his cast and for the audience; even the smallest roles embody some action or relation to a scene’s main players.

Ashley Buckhout as Blance de la Force and Jennifer Routhier as the Prioress Madame de Croissy 

HSOW operas are double cast, and it seems somewhat unfair to single out performers having seen only one of the two casts in performance. However I would feel remiss if I failed to note Giovanni Spanu as the impotent aristocrat, and Sharon Tikyrian as the hopeful young nun, Constance for their performances. Jillian Bonner was highly effective as a new Prioress who tries to argue against martyrdom. Jennifer Routhier displayed formidable technique and presence as the first Prioress of the abbey. Mortally ill and in great pain, her deathbed crisis of faith was teriffying and real.

The leading role of Blanche is almost as large and psychologically complex as Hamlet. Ashley Buckhout sang beautifully and grew notably in the role as the opera progressed. Music Director Tara Scott accompanied on the piano. Her playing was so lovely that I frequently closed my eyes and just luxuriated in Poulenc’s beautiful music.

The choral singing was exceptionally fine. In the intense finale, staging and music combine to powerful effect. I was not the only one weeping, as I was exiting the Studio, many audience members, together with the ushers, were drying their eyes.

The power of live theatre is that it exists, always, in an eternal present. Whatever the setting of Les Dialogues des carmélites, in the theatre it is always happening in the NOW. Oscar Wilde observed, “The past, present, and future are but one moment in the sight of God. Time and space are mere accidents of thought. Imagination can transcend them.” This is a concept of the Universe that I feel would be deeply understood and shared by both the imagined nuns of Poulenc’s opera and the very real monks of Tibet.

There are two more performances of Les Dialogues des carmélites, I hope you will avail yourself of the opportunity to see a simple, strong production of a complex, beautiful opera.

Les Dialogues des carmélites is playing at the Neptune Studio Theatre on:

Wednesday, August 14, 7:30 pm

Saturday, August 17, 7:30 pm

For Box Office information, click here.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Photos are coutcredited to Emily Jewer of MJ Photographics in Halifax.

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