Saturday, March 10, 2007


Arg. Well, this is a severely late review of Lyric's Dialogues of the Carmelites, which J and I took in two (or three) weeks ago, but it still has two shows left, so I feel compelled to represent.

This is a lovely production: minimalist, classy and blessed with moments of really stunning beauty. In one scene, when the sisters are informed of their sentence, they are dressed in all black--then slowly recede into the crowd of citizens, becoming indistinguishable in the dimming lights, only to reemerge from the crowd in brilliant white robes. Wow. And the lighting design throughout is an ever fascinating essay in shades of blue, gray, and white, thoughtfully enhancing the careful shading in the story. I shall say it again. Why the h can't City Opera pull off productions like this? This production pulls off more elegant moments, armed more or less with only nun get-ups, than NYCO had in its whole season last year.

Also, Felicity Palmer is a rockstar. Clad in a shroud, hair a scrappy blond mop, she OWNS the stage as the Old Prioress. Her death sequence is one of those rare marriages of opera and the sort of balls out acting that would be at home on the straight stage. It is shocking, at times nauseating, and completely chill inducing. Awesome.

As J noted at the time, it's a bit harder to feel too strongly about the other vocal parts of Carmelites. Bayrakdarian as Blanch-a de la Forc-a was no doubt excellent, as was Pat Racette in the Mother Superior/(New Prioress?) role. But the real beauty in Dialogues doesn't lie in the solo writing, but in Poulenc's stunning orchestral and choral effects. These are brought off tremendously by the ensemble and the Lyric band, under Andrew Davis, who masterfully structures Poulenc's patterns for dramatic impact.

Just to ensure you're getting it fair and balanced, though, some downsides: 1. the guillotine woosh sound was a bit too ambiguous for my tastes. Maybe a woosh-thud would solve this problem? J says he thinks its actually a manipulation of some percussion instrument that's written into the score, tho, so maybe I am out of luck. 2. they have the nuns doing this kind of tai-chi dance as they are singing the Salve Regina and getting gets a bit old after like 74 executions. 3. not really a downside per se, but sopranos in nun costumes are really hard to tell apart, and the plot involves some confusing shifts in the nun-archy. Read the notes BEFORE the lights go down if you're not familiar. And tell me if you understand how promotion works in the convent. I feel like one of them gets passed over for Pat Racette but I don't know who or for which post.

Long story short: Poulenc kicks ass; don't wait for the DVD.


alex said...

Oh man, that sounds like a stunning production. It's a shame that I cannot get my butt to Chicago for the life of me, but it's playing pretty awesomely in my head, thanks to the review.

Yeah, sopranos in habits get pretty indistinguishable. When I saw this in Santa Fe with Racette as Blanche and Goerke as the New Prioress, I was close enough (and the theater small enough) that it wasn't too too bad. But, it would kind of stink to have to use body size to differentiate the singers ("Now the heftier one is gonna become the new head nun and the skinnier one with the small butt is pissed"). Maybe they should have big (not scarlet) letters affixed to their headgear so at least we can refer to Nun G and Nun Q.

It's definitely the choral writing that is most recognizably hummable (aside from, I think, Soeur Constance's soaring lines), but I definitely think that voices with character and their special kind of beauty pay bigger dividends than most imagine, just like a glorious voice in Monteverdi isn't required by our modern ears, but good god does it transform the piece.

Though I don't know a thing about nun hierarchy, I think the nun who feels slighted is Mother Marie. Though, IIRC, since the New Prioress was brought in from another convent to take the head spot, it feels (to M.M.) less of a slight than if another sister in the same convent had taken the spot instead.

In any case, I think it plays itself out in the scene where M.M. (who is wee obsessed with martyrdom) takes leadership in the Prioress' absence and is preparing the nuns to stick together and get axed. The New Prioress arrives and disbands the convent for their safety. (I think that's how that scene plays out, anyway.)

While of course the opera works well in "minimalist" yet symbol-laden production, I would be interested in seeing a different take (or a further take -- what would the opera be like if they also did away with the habits?).

Rachel said...

The guillotine "whoosh" is actually a manipulated paper cutter. It's creepy and I will NEVER be able to use one of those without thinking "AH! I killed a nun!" or "There goes Pat!"

As for a nun getting passed over for Pat Racette- most of the time, in the Carmelite monastary, the women of the order choose the next prioress when the old one dies. If this had been the case, Mere Marie probably would become the Mother Superior. BUT because of the chaos going on outside of the convent, an outside nun (dear friend Pat)was brought in as the Second Prioress in an attempt to please the revolting peasants. The powers that be thought that, since Lidoine was a peasant herself, the Carmelites might be left alone by the outside world.

That's reading a lot into it, of course, but it seems to be the general consensus around here. It's actually Pat's explanation, for the most part.

And the nuns are a little hard to tell apart from a distance. I'm not really sure how the audience would manage it when we can hardly tell ourselves, but... I suppose it get easier when they take off their habits.

Anyway, I'm glad you enjoyed it. It's a beautiful opera and a wonderful production that really serves the music and the drama.

Anonymous said...

The guillotine at Lyric Opera was actually a synthesizer. Apparently, the sound of a real paper cutter just didn't "cut it".