In 2013, Olivier Py’s staging of Dialogues of the Carmelites de Poulenc was premiered at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées.
This production, which was a huge success and won the Grand Prix du Syndicat de la Critique as Best Show of the season 2013/14, returns to Paris with a coveted cast: Patricia Petibon, Sabine Devieilhe, Anne Sofie von Otter, Sophie Koch, Véronique Gens and Stanislas de Barbeyrac.
“Au jardin des Oliviers,
le Christ n’était plus maître de rien.
Il a eu peur de la mort.”
In an almost exclusively female setting, without any romantic storyline, Dialogues of the Carmelites is an opera that deals with profound existential themes such as fear and death.
The texts and the music accompany us on this spiritual journey and make us feel calm and serene, in spite of it all. We too fly to the starry sky at the back of the stage, to which the souls of the Carmelites rise, filled with Grace.
Visually, everything emphasizes the idea of sacrifice, like that of Jesus. In her house, Blanche lays her back against the wall and stretches her arms in a cross, and Madame de Croissy experiences her “agony of Christ” in a bed spectacularly designed in a vertical position. All this happens under the lights of Bertrand Killy, sharp as the blade of the guillotine.
The Carmelites die in total injustice, but with great dignity and courage. Their sorority forces them to sacrifice with each other, one for each other, in a peaceful acceptance, symbolized by Sister Constance, who in the end persuade also the reluctant Blanche de la Force.
Olivier Py‘s black-and-white staging is a perfect balance between visual strength and refinement, dramatism and restraint, and explicit and subtle meanings.
Instead of distracting us from the libretto and the music, as it may often happen, here visual effects enhance their meaning by keeping viewers on the wire from beginning to end.
Each of the 12 paintings has its own style and strength, in an overall coherence ranging from sung scenes to interludes, of which one can notice the magnificent cut-out cardboards that the singers use to reenact the tableaux vivants of Jesus’ life.
After portraying a compelling Constance, Patricia Petibon is, as in 2013, a stunning Blanche de la Force. An outstanding actress and flawless singer, she captures all the complexity of the character and makes her credible: her Blanche is tortured and fearful, as well as tough and determined. We follow her journey with concern and self-identify with her.
With few elements, Olivier Py manages to outline the contrast between the middle-class universe in which Blanche lives, symbolized only by black wood panelling and a lavish chandelier, and the restrained one of the Monastery, with just a few chairs and a small table.
The young woman’s passage into religious life is made through an opening in the shape of a cross, created by splitting the four panels forming the wall of her house.
By depicting Madame de Croissy stuck to the wall in a vertical bed sorely lit by the bottom, Py stresses the woman’s agony and the irony of fate that causes her to say: “I meditated on death every hour of my life, and it’s no use to me now…”.
The horror of this scene is reinforced by the expressiveness of Anne Sofie von Otter, sharing her suffering with us, with her voice becoming weaker and tired, until her last breath.
Very naïve, perhaps a little foolish, the young Constance brings light and hope to this dark story, light and colourful like the soapy bubbles she unexpectedly produces instead of cleaning the floor.
Sabine Devieilhe is absolutely perfect in this role, with her juvenile and angelic look, which contrasts with Blanche’s gloominess. Her voice rises gently and aerial, and in the end we realize that she was much more lucid than she seemed.
It is surprising to see how the 5 great female roles are so well defined, Poulenc compared them to other opera heroines: Blanche to Thaïs, Madame Lidoine to Desdemone, Madame de Croissy to Amneris, Mother Marie to Kundry and Constance to Zerlina.
Mother Marie and Madame Lidoine, respectively portrayed by Sophie Koch and Véronique Gens, are indeed very different, one seeking to fulfill her role of Prioress, in despite a heart full of tenderness and compassion, and the other cooler, but ultimately also very caring. Their voices are also contrasted, one more lyrical, the other more dramatic, in a kind of complementary way.
On the men’s side, we enjoyed the confident but warm voice of Nicolas Cavallier (Marquis de la Force) and the mighty one, sometimes a bit overpowered, of Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Knight of the Force), very moving in the duo with his sister.
François Piolino, with a voice full of harmonics, incarnates an accurate Chaplain and Enguerrand de Hys, an assertive first commissioner, aggressive in front of “the wolves” and sympathetic to the nuns.
In the shadow of the Terror, everyone fights in his own way, at his own risks and perils, as Blanche points out during the conversation with her brother.
Resigned to God’s will, the Carmelites face death gathered in a circle, holding hands. Their heartbreaking Salve Regina cuts their breath one by one, while the audience self-identifies.
Being not graphic, the violence of the slaughter of innocent women is all the more extreme. They head towards the stars in the salvation of eternal life, while we meditate on death and on the atrocities mankind is responsible for.