Stage Director Serge Denoncourt returns to the Opéra de Montréal for the first time in almost two decades, lending a measured dramaturgic eye to Poulenc’s indispensable chef-d’oeuvre. Their second production in as many to include an all-Canadian cast and artistic direction, with Dialogues Opéra de Montréal once again confirms the richness of the Canadian operatic scene.
In advance of Opéra de Montréal’s new production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des carmélites, The Globe and Mail published a profile of the production entitled “Timely lessons about faith and intolerance” that compares the plot of Dialogues, which is based on the 1794 Martyrs of Compiègne who were beheaded during the Reign of Terror, to the Ursuline Convent riots of 1834 in Charleston, Massachusetts – during which a Ursuline convent was set ablaze by anti-Catholic Protestants – as well as more contemporary acts of religious persecution.
Writes Robert Everett-Green:
“Poulenc was a devout Catholic, and his 1956 opera deals with an episode of cruelty and repression as a test of faith and character. This is a timeless theme, and like many timeless things, can easily be related to current conditions, including political events.
We live at a time when religious women who wear other kinds of form-concealing clothes are expected to justify their faith, their community and their deviation from secular norms. The election of Donald Trump as U.S. President has given power to a part of the American political spectrum that sees a threat in all visible manifestations of Islam.”
Timely indeed. I was halfway through writing this review yesterday when news broke about the shooting at a mosque in Sainte-Foy, Quebec, causing me to scrap my initial premise. Deemed an act of terrorism by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the shooting left six dead and many more in critical condition.
Of course the investigation is ongoing, but in an era of unprecedented globalization and interconnectivity, it’s not hard to postulate a motive for the sole suspect, who likes American President Donald Trump, French far-right politician Marine Le Pen, and the Israeli Defense Forces on Facebook. It’s also hard not to find a link between this action and the anti-Islamic sentiment behind the Executive Order on Immigration signed by Mr. Trump on Friday that targeted seven Majority-Muslim countries.
If it seems like I’m drifting off track from Poulenc here, I believe the current socio-political situation is as Bloomberg tech reporter Sarah Frier tweeted yesterday evening: “Every journalist, no matter the beat, covers politics now.”
Every journalist, no matter the beat, covers politics now.
— Sarah Frier (@sarahfrier) January 30, 2017
And, well, opera is necessarily political, especially this one.
Recently, we published a piece by our New York-based contributor Charles Geyer, in which he interviews American-Israeli composer Avner Dorman about his new opera Wahnfried, which premiered this past weekend at the Badisches Saatstheater in Karlsruhe, Germany. Wahnfried is a surrealist, historical (and at times comedic) take on British expatriate Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s insinuation into the lives of the Wagner family, which influenced the course of the composer’s legacy after his death.
Dorman opens up about the power of the operatic genre, whether the story is fact-based or fictional:
“There’s a big advantage for opera to address bigger issues about these painful corners of history, and of what humans do. […] Opera has the advantage of the music, and it can actually say these things in a non-prescriptive, non-moralistic way. You get it as an audience – it doesn’t have to be hammered in the text itself.”
It’s a vision of opera beyond allegory, and I believe it’s a useful interpretation for difficult works like Dialogues des carmélites. Revisiting the wounds of the Terror at a time when France was redressing the fresher traumas of the Holocaust – especially the role Vichy France played in collaborating with Nazi Germany – Poulenc draws on both the writings and political leanings of French author Georges Bernanos for the opera’s libretto. Other ambiguities of reconciliation can be found in the composer’s biography itself: at the time of writing Dialogues in the mid-1960s, Poulenc, an openly gay man, had recently devoted himself to Catholicism.
Writing “Blanche, was me” to a friend in reference to the protagonist of Dialogues, Blanche de La Force, Poulenc seems to align her journey from anxiety to acceptance of the unknown to his own. The opera opens with Blanche’s father, le Marquis de La Force, played admirably by Gino Quilico, arguing with her brother le Chevalier de La Force (Antoine Bélanger) about Blanche’s fearfulness in response to the pervasive anti-aristocratic sentiments in Revolutionary French society. Blanche (Marianne Fiset) informs her father that she wishes to become a nun and withdraw from the world.
Upon her arrival at the monastery, the prioress Madame de Croissy (Mia Lennox), her health wasting away, tells Blanche that the convent is not a refuge but a house of prayer. This, and many of the remaining scenes in the opera are expressed in a dialogue, as the title of the opera suggests; a recitative-like vocal form, often with stark orchestra accompaniment, broken up by instrumental interludes and the occasional choral number. At the convent, Blanche meets the young and affable Sister Constance (Magali Simard-Galdès), who tells her of a dream in which she saw the two of them dying together. Later in the act, Blanche and the sub-prioress Mère Marie de l’Incarnation (Aidan Ferguson) witness the painful death of the prioress, which shakes Blanche. In Act II, Constance muses about the death of the prioress, calling it small and unworthy of her. Madame Lidoine (Marie-Josée Lord) becomes the new prioress and warns of the temptation of easy martyrdom in the first choral scene of the opera.
It is here where the directors set the break for intermission, opening the action of the second half on a repetition of Madame Lidoine’s words. Claiming she is no longer safe, Blanche’s brother arrives to implore her to leave the monastery, but Blanche refuses. At a service, the chaplain (Keven Geddes) announces that he is no longer allowed to preach, which gives Mère Marie the idea that the Carmelites may serve a higher purpose through martyrdom, leading to a strong rebuke from the prioress. But as the crowds grow outside the gates, martyrdom seems more and more likely.
Act III opens on Mère Marie, who decides in the absence of the new prioress that the sisters take a vow of martyrdom based on a majority vote. Blanche takes the vow before fleeing in fear. Forced out of their habits into civilian clothes, the Carmelites are still arrested and found guilty of illegal assembly and conspiracy. As they sing Salve Regina, they are killed by guillotine one by one, until it is just Blanche and Constance. Blanche fulfils her oath without fear and her voice falls silent.
Within the simple and Spartan world created by set designer Guillaume Lord, the singing from all involved was resplendent. Marianne Fiset as Blanche was brilliant both vocally and dramatically, never once betraying her true age and experience in relation to the character she portrayed. The young Magali Simard-Galdès, making her OdeM debut after graduating from the Atelier program, played Sister Constance with a bright and lilting soprano, certainly a voice to look out for in the years to come. As the aged prioress Madame de Croissy, mezzo-soprano Mia Lennox gave a convincing performance, expressing a wide range of human sorrow and suffering with a naturalness that can only be innate.
Also alumnas of the Atelier lyrique program, mezzo-sopranos Aidan Ferguson and Marie-Josée Lord gave masterful interpretations to their respective roles, while tenors Antoine Bélanger and (current Atelier member) Keven Geddes provided balance and contrast. Jean-François Rivest steered a large orchestra with ease, finding subtle colours within the orchestration that alternatively served as counterbalance and reinforcement to the vocal lines. The lighting was as stark as the sets; designer Martin Labrecque opted for a low-hanging ceiling aided by horizontal lights offstage on either side, as if the dramatic action were taking place without illumination from on high until the final scene.
As the final chords of Poulenc’s Dialogues des carmélites fade with the lights, resolving with a definitive and abrupt plucked ending, we are reminded that progress is never linear. The suppression of Blanche and the Carmelites reminds us that we must remain vigilant for governmental regimes that incite fear and mistrust between us and the Other – including minorities who are us, who are a vital part of the fabric of our society. Their struggle reminds us of our duty to speak truth to power, stand up against tyranny, and stand in solidarity with those disadvantaged who only seek a better life.
But most of all, it reminds us that the Enlightenment ideals of liberté, égalité, and fraternité that form the basis of Western democracy were never — and have never — been uniformly applied to all members of society from the outset of any constitutional democracy in the modern world.
Remaining performances for the Opéra de Montréal’s Dialogues des carmélites are January 31, February 2 & 4, 7:30 PM. Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Arts. www.operademontreal.com