Dialogues of the Carmelites: Not your ordinary opera – but extraordinary

Dialogues of the Carmelites: Not your ordinary opera – but extraordinary

By Francis Poulenc

Vancouver Opera

November 26, 29, December 1 & 3, 2005

All performances 7:30 pm  Queen Elizabeth Theatre

                Jonathan Darlington

                Tazewell Thompson   

Blanche de la Force    Kathleen Brett

                Judith Forst

Madame Lidoine        Measha Brueggergosman

Mere                Claire

Constance                 Nathalie Paulin

I walked out of Vancouver Opera’s 2005 serving of Dialogues of the
simply amazed.  It was a production you either loved or
hated. It pushed buttons. It wasn’t traditional. It was inspiring. It
was beautiful. It made you think. There was no love story between a man
and a woman.

There were no familiar songs that would ever appear on Opera’s greatest
hits.  But it provided extraordinary showcase performances for
Judith Forst, Kathleen Brett, Measha Bruggergosman and Claire
Primrose.  How strange it is to see an opera where all the main
characters are women, and where men play only secondary and supporting
roles. But while there are no sexy tunes between men and women, there
are many arias that deal with the relationship of spirit and to

It is 1789, the dawn of the French Revolution.  After an incident
in which her carriage is surrounded by The by mobs fin the street, a
young agitated aristocratic woman named Blanch de la Force decides to
join the Carmelite Order seeking refuge from both her family and the
social turmoil happening in France. 

Blanche discovers an inner
journey that is challenged once again by inside forces when she
befriends a fellow initiate named Constance who shares with Blanche
that they will die together.  Blanche is again challenged
when  she is
present at the death of the Pioress, who wails that Death is ugly,
unforgiving and unspiritual. Soon after, outside forces come to play
when the
New French Republic orders that all Religious Orders become outlawed,
and the nuns are forced to leave their home. It is at this point that
Blanche flees the convent to find refuge as a servant in an
aristocratic house.

Judith Forst sings a knock-out performance as the Prioress,
while sitting in her death bed. 
Kathleen Brett readily
the agitated psychological state of Blanche de la Force, although her
voice was weak at points – perhaps due to playing Blanche's weak state
of mind, because in Act 2 & 3, as Blanche matures psychologically
in her convictions, her voice becomes stronger.  Nathalie Paulin
provided a clear and calm
foil as Constance, to Brett’s Blanche.  And when finally
came on stage in the 2nd Act, her voice and movement had
so much presence it was hard not to be enthralled.

This is
not a “pretty opera” despite its beatific moments where the nuns pledge
themselves to martyrdom.  It is indeed a psychological drama that
questions our own relationship to spirit, heroism, totalitarianism,
religious order and self-sacrifice.  While watching I could not
help but compare the exiling of the nuns from their convent to the
internment of the Japanese-Canadians in 1942, which was nicely explored
in Vancouver Opera's production of
Naomi's Road
Nor could I not draw comparison to the Vancouver Opera's past
production of Beethoven's only opera Fidelio, also set during the
French Revolution.

The final climatic scene is difficult to tear one's eyes away
from.  Here is a spoiler – but good to know as the real story was
first published by Marie Mere as a memoir.  Despite first
suggesting martyrdom to her fellow nuns, it is she alone who somehow
survives the imprisionment of the nuns, and their final walk to the
guillotine.  Musically it is very powerful, as the cast sings
Salve Regina, each one walks up, across and finally off-stage,
one  by one, until you hear the metalic sound of a
guilotine.  The choir of voices becomes smaller one by one until
only Constance remains.  It is then that Blanche appears to hold
hands with her friend Constance and to fulfil Constance's vision that
they would die together.

Here was a modern opera written by Francis Poulenc, sung in French, set
during the French revolution, about Carmelite nuns – and directed by
African-American theatre and opera director
Tazewell Thompson.  As
a 9-year old boy, Thompson was sent by his grandparents to live in the
convent of the Sisters of St. Dominic, in Blauvelt, N.Y. where he spent
six years.  He says he learned Gregorian chants before he ever
knew pop, jazz, folk or opera music.  What an extraordinary
experience to learn and develop a relationship with a spiritual diety,
as well as evolving one’s own spiritual development!  It makes
sense that Thompson was asked to help create this particular production
first with Glimmerglass Opera and New York City Opera.

Poulenc's music is indeed both beautiful and spiritual. I was moved by
its thoughtful passages, and found myself humming Stravinsky's Infernal Dance of King Katschei
from the Firebird Suite.  As well, I found myself thinking of
Gershwin's American in Paris, and Porgy and Bess.  It was not a
surprise then to read in the progam notes that Poulenc named Stravinsky
as one of his greatest influences, as well as Gershwin.

Donald Eastman’s set design is beautiful in its simplicity.  A
simple wall, stands halfway back on the stage, creating the interior of
the Church.  Muted light enters through a high window.  At
scence changes the pillars come forward to become walls, and to create
individual rooms.  Later they recede, and the lighting changes to
and exterior scene.  The lighting changes again, and it is another
scene in the Church, this time the harsh early light of morning. 
The walls move again, and the nuns are in a prison cell.

Classical music has always been kind to colour-blind casting, as
opposed to theatre or film. Casting New Brunswick born Afro-Canadian
Measha Bruggergosman has absolutely no negative impact.  In fact,
I think it speaks loudly about the multicultural ease that opera moves
with.  The opera audience listens to French, German, Italian
easily, and there has even been an opera now in Cree.  The
settings are from around the world such as China in Vancouver Opera’s
production of
Turandot.  I look forward to the January 2007 production
of Mozart’s Magic Flute
reconstructed with a First Nations theme blending
western and First Nations traditions together and designed with a team of First Nations artists.

In the end, it is the inspiration of the performances that moves us.

check out these reviews and links

Dialogues of the Carmelites

Georgia Straight review by Jessica Werb

Divine inspiration behind Vancouver Opera's latest

Vancouver Courier Review by Louise Phillips

All Praise to the singing nuns

Globe & Mail review by Elissa Poole

Religious Reflections

Georgia Straight interview with director Tazewell Thompson by Colin Thomas

Vancouver Opera Insight Articles

Facing the World Inside the Walls

Notes on the production of Dialogues of the Carmelites
by Stage Director
Tazewell Thompson
by Doug Tuck
Francis Poulenc, Graceful Composer

by Doug Tuck

Hearing the voice of Grace, Poulenc's Musical Style

by David Shefsiak

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