Fight the gov­ern­ment with song

On mar­tyr­dom in Opera de Mon­treal’s Di­a­logue des car­mélites

The McGill Daily - - Culture - Carly Gor­don

In 1794, at the height of France’s Reign of Ter­ror, four­teen Carmelite nuns were sen­tenced to the guil­lo­tine.

Re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tions stirred para­noia in the new Ja­cobin gov­ern­ment: clois­tered and se­cre­tive, might the nuns be plot­ting against the Rev­o­lu­tion? The four­teen nuns were or­dered to dis­band their con­vent – their home and com­mu­nity – but in­stead, they took a vow of mar­tyr­dom, will­ing to die for their be­liefs. As they marched to their deaths on the scaf­fold, the nuns didn’t cry or scream in protest. In­stead, they sang.

The true story of the singing Mar­tyrs of Com­piègne in­spired a screen­play by French writer Ge­orges Ber­nanos, which in turn in­spired com­poser Fran­cis Poulenc’s land­mark 1956 opera Dia­logues des car­mélites. One of few reg­u­larly pro­grammed post­war op­eras – most are over­shad­owed by the cel­e­brated ear­lier works of Verdi and Psuc­cini – Dia­logues is a med­i­ta­tive and tragic re­flec­tion on friend­ship, faith, and hard­line ide­ol­ogy in times of dan­ger and fear.

Opéra de Mon­tréal pre­sented Dia­logues des car­mélites in Salle Wil­frid-pel­letier for a four-show run between Jan­uary 28 to Fe­bru­ary 4. The per­for­mance on Jan­uary 31 fea­tured suc­cess­ful de­liv­ery by an all-Cana­dian cast, bol­stered by the phe­nom­e­nal Orchestre Sym­phonique de Mon­treal un­der the ba­ton of con­duc­tor Jean-françois Rivest.

At first, the pro­duc­tion seemed marred by a sense of cold de­tach­ment, with phys­i­cal dis­tance sep­a­rat­ing the char­ac­ters and iso­lat­ing the au­di­ence. Nuns sat in chairs spaced far apart along the perime­ter of the stage, and a gauzy, semi-sheer cur­tain acted as a phys­i­cal bar­rier between char­ac­ters and scenes. Life in the con­vent felt bleak and lonely; even the long-winded death of the con­vent’s Pri­oress – sung with am­ple grav­i­tas by mezzo-so­prano Mia Len­nox – failed to en­act any sense of in­ti­macy in shared sor­row among the com­mu­nity of nuns.

Pro­tag­o­nist Blanche de La Force – so­prano Mar­i­anne Fiset – and Sis­ter Con­stance de Saint De­nis – so­prano Ma­gali Si­mard- Galdès – pro­vided an in­ti­mate an­tithe­sis to this staged de­tach­ment. Blanche is the ner­vous, flighty daugh­ter of a de­posed Mar­quis. Fright­ened of the in­creas­ingly vi­o­lent Paris streets, and pro­fess­ing her de­sire to “lead a heroic life,” Blanche en­ters into the Or­der of Carmel as a novice nun. There, she meets an­other novice, Sis­ter Con­stance, a bub­bly and blithe foil to Blanche’s anx­ious pes­simism. The two be­come friends, even as Blanche is shaken by Con­stance’s eerie pre­mo­ni­tion that the two would die young, to­gether, on the same day.

Si­mard- Galdès stole the show in the role of Sis­ter Con­stance, ef­fort­lessly nail­ing each bright, leap­ing melody. She lent her char­ac­ter a sense of the su­per­nat­u­ral – an­gelic, pre­scient – in con­trast with Fiset’s over­wrought Sis­ter Blanche. Fiset sang the de­mand­ing role with mu­si­cal suc­cess, while Blanche’s stiff, melo­dra­matic arias echoed the cold, spa­cious stag­ing of the open­ing two acts.

How­ever, in Act III, the au­di­ence wit­nessed a shift. Ja­cobin of­fi­cers forced the nuns to ex­change their habits for plain­clothes, and urged them to de­clare al­le­giance to the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary gov­ern­ment. Res­o­lute in their re­fusal, the nuns – now un­rec­og­niz­able in thread­bare civil­ian cloaks – gath­ered closely in a crowd, find­ing warmth and strength in one an­other, and bridg­ing the icy dis­tance that stretched through the pre­vi­ous acts. Sud­denly, close­ness be­came a theme of the fi­nal act – close­ness of com­mu­nity, both phys­i­cal and emo­tional; the en­croach­ing near­ness of death; and close­ness to God, on the thresh­old of the nuns’ mar­tyr­dom.

Dia­logues des car­mélites counts among a series of sa­cred and spir­i­tual works com­posed by Fran­cis Poulenc (1899-1963) af­ter the 1935 death of his father spurred his re­turn to the Catholic Church. A mem­ber of Les Six – the six most prom­i­nent Parisian com­posers of the 20th cen­tury – Poulenc strug­gled to rec­on­cile his de­vout Catholic faith with his queer sex­u­al­ity. Dia­logues sees traces of these iden­ti­ties: the in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship between Blanche and Con­stance could eas­ily be read as ro­man­tic, cul­mi­nat­ing in a lit­eral “’til death do us part,” within a com­mu­nity of women and femmes de­voted to serv­ing God, and ul­ti­mately killed for their de­vo­tion.

When the nuns vote to take vows of mar­tyr­dom, Blanche’s faith wa­vers: she flees the con­vent, tak­ing to the streets of Paris. How­ever, on the day of the ex­e­cu­tion, she ar­rives at the city square and calmly takes her place on the scaf­fold, Sis­ter Con­stance at her side.

L’orchestre Sym­phonique de Mon­tréal de­liv­ered a colour­ful in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Poulenc’s richly lay­ered score. Wood­wind melodies shone – es­pe­cially a mourn­ful, chant-like ca­denza played by Pierre-vin­cent Plante on English horn – while brass lent mil­i­taris­tic pre­ci­sion and res­o­nant cel­los and basses kept the orches­tra grounded in a low, som­bre range. The pow­er­ful end­ing fea­tured the nuns’ fi­nal song: a har­row­ing ren- di­tion of the prayer “Salve Regina” as they ap­proached the guil­lo­tine. Thun­der­ous per­cus­sion paired with an elec­tronic sound ef­fect im­i­tated the slic­ing of a blade, while each nun’s spot­light went out one by one, leav­ing the dead in dark­ness.

Writ­ten in a France still reel­ing from fas­cism and war, and re­count­ing an ear­lier France sim­i­larly caught in the throes of ex­trem­ism and ter­ror, Dia­logues des car­mélites con­tin­ues to feel rel­e­vant in light of the per­ilous pop­ulism glob­ally on the rise. But there is a cer­tain dan­ger in as­crib­ing hero­ism to Poulenc’s mar­tyred nuns: they were will­ing to die for their be­liefs, but not to stand and fight.

Nonethe­less, Dia­logues tells the story of a com­mu­nity of strong women and femmes who sup­port one an­other, love one an­other, and up­hold their faith and their val­ues with out­spo­ken pride in the face of vi­o­lent po­lit­i­cal op­pres­sion – and who meet their fate not with res­ig­na­tion or fear, but with song. Here, song – mu­sic – be­comes a po­lit­i­cal act: the voices of the op­pressed, raised in unity, are im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore.

As they marched to their deaths on the scaf­fold, the nuns didn’t cry or scream in protest. In­stead, they sang. At first, the pro­duc­tion seemed marred by a sense of cold de­tach­ment, with phys­i­cal dis­tance sep­a­rat­ing the char­ac­ters and iso­lat­ing the au­di­ence. Dia­logues des car­mélites con­tin­ues to feel rel­e­vant in light of the per­ilous pop­ulism glob­ally on the rise.

Cour­tesy of The Globe and Mail

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.