Calixto Bieito’s new production of Dialogues of the Carmelites at the Komische Oper Berlin begins as the audience takes their seats. A disheveled, nearly naked woman is wildly wandering around the maze of the set waving an incense censer. I took this as a hint that this staging may not harbor warm feelings towards organized religion.
This, it turns out, was not quite true. It was more Bieito being Bieito–giving us a shocking image. The rest of the staging is less characteristic, which is to say more restrained. It’s a similar but clearer take on many of same themes as his Fidelio–alienation, mental illness, and social chaos. In a nasty, violent world, where are guidance, virtue and truth?
Poulenc, Dialogues des Carmélites (Gespräche der Karmelitinnen). Komische Oper Berlin, 7/9/2011. New production directed by Calixto Bieito, set design by Rebecca Ringst and costumes by Ingo Krügler. Conducted by Stefan Blunier with Maureen McKay (Blanche de la Force), Irmgard Vilsmaier (Mère Marie), Ingrid Froseth (Soeur Constance), Christiane Oertel (Madame de Croissy), Erika Roos (Madame Lidoine), Joska Lehtinen (Chevalier de la Force), Claudio Otelli (Marquis de la Force).
With modern dress and more than a few small cuts to the score, Bieito has replaced the specifics of the French Revolution with vague contemporary chaos. The Marquis de la Force is a violent character whose sympathy for Blanche is complicated by reading her diary and threatening his son. But as soon as he shows the mercy of allowing Blanche to enter the “convent,” some revolutionaries slit his throat. Random act or consequence? Doesn’t matter, really.
Robert Carsen’s Dialogues des Carmélites
Theater an der Wien, 4/21/2011
Bayerische Staatsoper, 1/5/2011
Theater Basel, 10/9/2010
The trembling, terrified Blanche wants to escape this world from the start, and the convent is closer to a mental institution than a house of prayer (the nuns wear dowdy institutional clothes, not habits). But it’s also a last outpost for social order and decent humanity. The nuns pray staring straight out into the nothingness of the theater; their faith seems most powerful for its ability to bind them together against the horrors of the outside world. Looming over all of this are steel rows of multilevel bunks, a harsh portrayal of their regimented lives. (It is similar to Ringst’s design for Fidelio but thankfully much quieter.)
The lack of habits makes the characters more easily individualized than usual (I appreciated this), including pregnant and delusional Constance, disciplinarian Mère Marie to well-intentioned earth mother Madame Lidoine. And yes, the naked woman from the opening is wandering around too. No bodily fluids are spared during the Old Prioress’s death, and a long, silent washing of her body is one of the production’s more touching moments, and one of several where Bieito stops the music for long stretches of stage action.
But mostly this is amazingly conventional, with flowers where we expect flowers and, unlike Fidelio, an iron where we expect an iron. The direction is tight and intense, though a few scenes are static in a way that turns more empty than transfixing. And, as is common in these things, the ending is messy. The community of the convent breaks down with the incursion of the outside world, the execution is proclaimed via megaphone from the second ring of the theater (+5 Brecht Points, we the audience are of the revolutionaries, not the nuns). Not enough is made of Blanche’s flight and return, though her run through the scary moving colossus of the set is amazing. At the very end, in a more expected Bietian register, the nuns forced to wear signs reading “HURE GOTTES” (God’s Whore), but the final chorus is robbed of some of its horror with a less than musical staging for this very dramatic music.
One of the most rewarding things about Bieito productions is the intensity and consistency of the performances, and this showing from the Komische Oper’s ensemble was no exception. Particular standouts were Maureen McKay was a vivid, possessed Blanche, sung with a strong, bright middle voice and somewhat shrill higher notes; Irmgard Vilsmeier’s emphatic, dramatic Mère Marie; and Erika Roos’s clarion, heartfelt Madame Lidoine. Ingrid Froseth sounded wispy but sweet as Constance and was convincingly unhinged (I was waiting for her to give birth the entire time). Stefan Blunier led the good house orchestra in an understated but clean and clear account of the score.
The German translation is by Peter Funk and Wolfgang Binal, and seemed singable, mostly accurate, and, thanks to excellent diction from most of the cast, comprehensible.
I still have lukewarm feelings about this opera, but this production made me believe in it more than ever before. It is certainly one to catch if you are in Berlin. One performance remains, on July 16, and it will be back next season.
Photos copyright Monika Rittershaus