Measha Brueggergosman; photo by Tim Matheson

Vancouver Opera

Les Dialogues des carmélites (Dialogues of the Carmelites)
by Francis Poulenc

Dates 26 and 29 November 2005, 1 and 3 December at 19.30 Venue Queen Elizabeth Theatre

Conductor Jonathan Darlington Director Tazewell Thompson

Blanche de la Force Kathleen Brett Prioress Judith Forst Madame Lidoine Measha Brueggergosman Mère Marie Claire Primrose Constance Nathalie Paulin Chevalier de la Force John Tessier Marquis de la Force John Fanning Mère Jeanne Geneviève Després Soeur Mathilde Barbara Towell Father Confessor Blaine Hendsbee 1st Officer John Arsenault 2nd Officer/Gaolier Kevin Sean Pook

Reviewer J H Stape


Poulenc's 1957 opera, centred on a group of Carmelite nuns guillotined during The Reign of Terror does not, at first sight, having the makings of a crowd-pleaser. The subject is dark, the love interest God, and real action emotional. The work's riveting dramatic qualities, superb major roles, and spellbinding score have nonetheless earned this most Catholic of operas a solid place in the modern repertoire. With singers like Judith Forst, Kathleen Brett, and Measha Brueggergosman, Vancouver Opera's current production, in a brilliant staging from New York City Opera, is a deeply moving and exciting dramatic experience.

For this production Director James W. Wright has assembled a near "dream team" of lead singers. Kathleen Brett as Blanche is heartbreakingly vulnerable as a young woman fired by religious idealism caught up in the meshes of the French Revolution. Brett's formidable talents as a singing-actress are used unstintingly, and her conflicted, at times even neurotic, Blanche is compellingly sung. The role of her companion novice Soeur Constance was ably taken by Nathalie Paulin.

Judith Forst's Prioress is surely one of the highlights in a long and distinguished career. Her understanding of the role, sharply honed dramatic skills, and characteristically intelligent singing make this, quite simply, a tour de force, with her death at the end of the first act music theatre at its very best. At the opening of her career, Measha Brueggergosman, essaying the role of Madame Lidoine, lived up to the high expectations surrounding her West Coast début. Her fresh voice is a beautiful instrument, the chest tones particularly creamy. An assured stage presence, even at this early stage, one sees why a meteoric rise hovers on the near horizon.

Claire Primrose's Mère Marie was the one weak link in the top female line-up. Acting to the high level demanded by this intense production, she was sometimes struggling and even shrill and vinegary in tone, a contrast to her fine Chrysothemis in Elektra a few seasons ago.

Men's voices naturally play a smaller part in this opera. John Fanning and John Tessier as, respectively, the Marquis and Chevalier de la Force made elegant and stylish contributions. Fanning has a commanding stage presence and a rewardingly rich baritone. Mr Tessier's performance was characteristically well sung, shot through with dramatic sense. Alas, the minor male roles, no less than three in this big cast, fell below the level of the rest of the production vocally and dramatically (and in terms of French diction).

And, oh the music! Jonathan Darlington brought finesse and polish to this complex score, the Vancouver Opera Orchestra never sounding better and cooperation between pit and stage simply ideal, overcoming even the many challenges of that 1960s barn of an opera space, the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

Some opera companies have seen rather too much of "director's opera" (a recent disastrously directed but well sung Rodelinda in Toronto is too fresh in mind), but Tazewell Thompson's direction of this handsome production is one of its many triumphs. The sense of claustrophobia, the control of groups, the freedom from distracting gimmickry, and an unerring instinct for subtlety and taste were unremittingly on display. Please bring him back.

2005 J. H. Stape