Friday, August 5, 2011

Komische Oper 'Festival 2011: Dialogues des carmélites

Dialogues des carmélites [Gespräche der Karmelitinnen],  Komische Oper in Berlin,  July 16 2011

 Calixto Bieito ..... director
    Stefan Blunier ..... conductor

    Claudio Otelli ..... Le marquis de La Force
    Maureen McKay ..... Blanche de La Force
    Joska Lehtinen ..... Le chevalier de la Force
    Christiane Oertel ..... Madame de Croissy
    Erika Roos ..... Madame Lidoine
    Irmgard Vilsmaier ..... Mère Marie de l'Incarnatio
    Ingrid Froseth ..... Sœur Constance de Saint-Denis
    Caren van Oijen ..... Mère Jeanne de l'Enfant-Jésus
    Maren  Schäfer ..... Sœur Mathilde
    Peter Renz ..... Le père confesseur du couvent
    Thomas Ebenstein ..... Le premier commissaire
    Hans-Peter Scheidegger ..... Le second commissaire

As I mentioned it in my earlier blog entries about the Komische Oper Festival, the festive atmosphere goes beyond a special introduction to the show and organized discussions with the artists after the show. For the evening of Carmélites the organizers arranged a small concert in the theater's atrium filling the house before the beginning of the show and during the intermission with music by Francis Poulenc -- music for flute & piano.

Calixto Bieito production of Dialogues des carmélites is new, premiered on June 26 2011, and --together with Idomeneo-- was in fact the main reasons for my trip to Berlin.

Whatever the issue he decides to elaborate on, Bieito always finds a way to shift the focus of the original story and to take side of one of the protagonists. Here, he is being more careful and while he build the production around the role of catholic religion as a remedy for fear of death/life, he never takes the stand for or against it. Religion here is not good nor bad. It simply is -- which is new for Calixto, and in this situation I liked it [his production is not juggling with that issue at all.]

You remember that I loved the Tcherniakov's take on Carmélites because he completely changed the ending, by giving it a humanistic twist -- implying that no religion or ideology is worth a human life, and instead of having Blanche returning to join the Carmélites to guillotine, she actually returned to rescue every single one of them. In other words the message was: it is wrong to die for an idea. There is nothing noble in it! After all the ideological movements of the 20th century, millions of people dying for or from them -- it was the moment to say no, and I loved the courage to do so even if it meant to disturb many people [including myself at first!] who expected to be moved to tears during the Salve Regina finale and they weren't. In retrospect, that was a very intellectually refreshing production (available on DVD).

Bieito takes a different route and while he sticks to the libretto, he is not painting the chaotic and vengeful social background of the French revolution, but builds a complex portrait of Blanche de la Force. He is fascinated by her inability to cope with the idea of death or with the idea of life as such, and he finds that the religion actually becomes a template for her fears, a remedy to cope with life and death.
Her mother died while giving birth to her, and the circumstances of that death defined Blanche's attitude towards life, and at the same time further increased her fear from death (c.f. synopsis).

Blanche turns to religion as she feels it could redeem her from her 'primal' guilt (her mother died giving birth to her), but also because it would provide her a comfort of the motherly figure she didn't have while she was growing up.

Bieito cleverly choses not to define the time framework of the story except to make it clear that it is not during the French revolution, but during the social unrests of modern time [the stage design and costumes by always brilliant Rebecca Ringst and Ingo Krügler let us conclude that]. The two column of screens placed on two sides of the stage suggest the world in which we are all observed, watched, controlled. With social unrest, and the video surveillance in the hands of our oppressors, the impact on us can be a shift towards paranoia, and that is how these women live -- on a constant edge of madness.

The rest of the story is obviously made masterfully, as you would expect it from Calixto. He particularly emphasize the relationship between Blanche and Mme de Croissy in whom Blanche sees "her mother". At the same time Mme de Croissy sees in Blanche her-younger-self, and a daughter she never had.  After the death of Mme de Croissy Blanche is depressed, and then more agitated as that rehash all her deep fears. Her communication with Constance is impossible. Constance embraces life without fears and she's in the convent not by her great desire but because she was brought there [in this production Constance is visibly pregnant].

Describing the heterogeneity in the community of Carmélites is what Calixto did brilliantly. Mother Marie is indeed a strong woman who has that innate authority of a person who appears to be sure of her priorities in every situation. While you would expect her to be a new leader, it is actually Mme Lidoine who becomes a new prioress.  She is portrayed as a women who has nothing to lose and to whom life is not different from death. She is a picture of the old fashioned catholic. One of the nuns is completely crazy: she wanders around aimlessly.  So it is a collection of lost souls, and I guess every woman can find a piece of herself in one of these women.
Chaplain is here a man who tries to hide from the oppressing (Revolutionary) Police, and he will be badly beaten and tortured in the convent. 

In the end, Marie will come back: she is terrified of life, especially when she discovered her family was executed, and terrified of death that seems inexorable. Why she comes back? Solidarity? That's her only home? In death she sees the rescue from her unbearable fears? Or she found her true faith?
That of course remains unanswered, but what Calixto did beautifully was that when the execution was approaching, they all were scared, naked, humiliated, crying... No space for pathos, no space for pathetic death... it's the elementary fear from death of everything that live. Even Mme Lidoine cried before she was sent to death.

In this truly gripping production, with no cheap effects often seen in the past, all singers were fantastic. Mme Lidoine was a tad too low for Erika Roos but once again she was amazing. Mother Marie by Irmgard Vilsmaier received probably the largest ovations after the show: her strong scenic appearance was backed by a huge voice, particularly beautiful in the upper register. Christiane Oertel was excellent too: this role suits her voice particularly well.  I liked a clear voice by Ingrid Frøseth that brought something  more innocent and vulnerable to the Constance's character (she too is Swedish!) All the other smaller roles were very good too. Finally, Maureen McKay's Blanche is absolutely wonderful. She is a living proof  of what I keep saying about American singers: they need to come to Europe, to escape the talentless American directors (for the most part!) and explore more their acting talents. In this production she could show the best of her voice, but also the best of her acting. She literally inhabited Blanche de la Force for those 3 hours and brought a mesmerizing portrayal of this character that must have moved Calixto himself. A fantastic girl who I hope we will see more often on the big opera scenes. Brava Maureen! Bravi Tutti!

I also liked the orchestra although I would have liked it more if Stefan Blunier moderated the orchestra more than trying to send a big orchestral waves that occasionally drowned out the singers. 

Finally a word about the end: It is always weird to clap after the end of Les Carmélites. To me it is almost morbid to start clapping right after the heart-wrenching execution. I even think a whole minute in the silence would be more appropriate to make many folks in the crowd who were crying to regroup. Naturally the first wave of applauding was very shy but when they all appeared for the second curtain call the ovations did not miss.

Should I repeat that I love Komische Oper Berlin? Nah, you already understood it  :)

Production photos [©Komische Oper and ©Frank Straub]

My CC pics:

and the trailer:

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