Friday, August 31, 2018

Terror delivered with unexpected overwhelming force in Melbourne Conservatorium of Music's Dialogues des Carmélites

Considering my deep appreciation of operatic performance in all its scales of presentation, it’s inexplicable why I hadn’t seen a staged opera presented by Melbourne University’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Music/Conservatorium of Music (MCM), that is, until Thursday night. When I learnt that a short 3-performance season of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites was to be staged at Abbotsford Convent, I wondered how this powerful and challenging mid-20th century work - loosely based on actual events during the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century - might stand up to recent productions I’ve seen at Covent Garden and Washington National Opera. In what was a highly commendable and captivating performance, it was a solid reminder that scale bears no relationship to theatrical impact and that a fertile field of operatic talent is growing healthily in our midst. 
Benjamin Glover as the Father Confessor with ensemble

The swelling tension, the musical strength and vocal aptitude honoured the work with quite unexpected and overwhelming force in a story that culminates in the gruesome guillotining of 16 Carmelite nuns. Their sheltered lives in the service of God was as incomprehensible to the suspicious authorities as theirs was of the brutality inflicted by these persecutors. Dialogues des Carmélites highlights both the differences in perspective and premises for common beliefs which bind community and the horrific affects when compartmentalised beliefs heighten fear during times of civil unrest.

Professor of Creative Performing Arts at MCM, director Jane Davidson has mobilised a superb and well-cast outfit as part of a visceral staging that simmers marvellously through fluid scene changes along its dramatic journey. While Blanche de la Force is the story’s central figure, a young woman of the aristocracy whose fears lead her into joining the Carmelites to take refuge, Davidson elicits a clear sense of subtle individuality from the extensive list of principal and supporting roles, allowing for so many young voices to be heard. 

Matthew Adey’s simple period-based design, lit with brilliantly crafted suspense, plays a pivotal role. A ramp and catwalk-like platform cuts through part of the audience seating leading to the stage where we see a room of short depth backed by a panelled white wall, the centre of which opens to reveal action beyond. Action moves compellingly across the spaces using simple props with results that provide a highly evocative and immersive experience that incorporates many effective tableaux. A Gothic screen mounted on the central catwalk by arriving nuns sets a probing scene for Blanche’s first meeting in Act 1 with the elderly prioress Madame de Croissy, a space effectively used later to feel the urgency Blanche’s brother expresses to coerce her to flee with him.

The final scene in Act 3 was a phenomenal surprise and stands out for its chilling and enveloping suspicion as a huge contingent of citizens weave through and spy the audience. Then, frightening and spectacular screams of insult ring out upon the procession of doomed nuns before the “Salve Regina” pours out with religious defiance, divine vocal purity and utterly heartbreaking shock. The icy sliver of the guillotine falls, lights extinguish then brighten again and the vocal intensity is reduced one by one to the terrifying end. 
Teresa Ingrilli as Blanche and Amelia Wawrzon as Sister Constance

Sung to Poulenc’s own French libretto and surtitled in English, the voices shone radiantly. Soprano Teresa Ingrilli impressed with a gorgeously measured and notable performance that stirred vulnerability with grace as the young Blanche, her nuanced tonal shading and lovely use of vibrato colouring her character with depth. Amelia Wawrzon’s more glassy and brighter soprano was put to fine use as the affable but premonitory Sister Constance. In richly textured and expressive voice as the ailing prioress Madame de Croissy, Heather Fletcher deftly exposed the anguished soul beneath compassionate authority. Rebekah Luise was an unflinchingly secure and stern-faced Mother Marie and Alexandra Ioan’s vocal amber glow and confidence brought enigmatic beauty to new prioress Madame Lidoine.

Male roles feature less so but nonetheless were filled with quality. Tenor Thomas Harvey, as Blanche’s brother Chevalier de la Force, delivered warmth and lyricism with tenderness of heart. MCM Alumni Lucas de Jong was assured as Marquis de la Force and Benjamin Glover was admirable as the Father Confessor.

Of course, it’s Poulenc’s both compelling and unsettling musical signatures that structure and highlight the drama, including the funereal-like background, drummed militaristic interruptions and the strikes and slashes of emotion. For this, the sizeable orchestra of 20-plus young musicians played with dedicated expertise under conductor and MCM Head of Orchestral Studies Richard Davis. 

In front of an audience of around 200, a number a handful of local independent opera companies would be overjoyed to see, I couldn’t help but wonder if these developing artists realised the immensity of their achievement. For my plus-one and I, the effect was extraordinary. Britten’s comic chamber opera, Albert Herring, appears to be scheduled for March 2019 so I’m crossing my fingers I’ll be here. 

Dialogues des Carmélites 
Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, University Melbourne 
Rosina Auditorium, Abbotsford Convent
Until 1st September 2018

Production Photos: Sarah Walker

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