Calixto Bieito’s surprising Dialogues of the Carmelites

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
 Bieto’s Fidelio
Bayerische Staatsoper, 1/5/2011
Bieto’s Aida
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

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  1. Goodness! It looks like the same set he created for the Fidelio I just saw broadcast live via the web from Munich. And the singers are carrying signs, just like in Fidelio. I thought Mr. Bieito had more ideas, but it seems recycling is popular everywhere.

  2. I've commented about my interest in this opera in some of your other threads, so I thank you for this review. I expected nothing less than non-traditional from Bieto, and your description of the production fits that expectation. I'd still like to see it although it looks like he's borrowed some (of the outward trappings) from his other productions. I'm constantly amazed that he inspires such commitment from his singers. I hope the prod is recorded for DVD, as it's unlikely to travel to SF in my lifetime.

  3. Ha, that's a very American comment, Cruz. By Regietheater standards this was a pretty traditional production. I don't know if it's going to be filmed, I doubt it will be at the Komische Oper because they don't seem to make DVDs of anything, unfortunately, and I don't believe it's a co-production. But who knows, maybe some day.

    Honestly I'm not at all bothered by the similarities between Bieito productions, though everyone else seems to be. When you look at the still images they look recycled (you can also blame the set designer for this), but when you see it play out and how everything is used, it barely occurred to me. The Fidelio set was a maze, this was a set of closely observed barracks–not that similar at all. Of course he has a personal style, but I think he really comes up with a unique angle for each opera. He doesn't recycle on the level of Robert Carsen, for sure.

  4. Hahaha. I'm afraid I'm held hostage to my US American upbringing. I do hope to travel to Europe someday on an opera-focused trip and have my mind expanded. 🙂

  5. If there's one Bieito production I'd love to see on DVD, it's the Stuttgart "Parsifal" but it seems that only parts of it were filmed (for use in promos) with no plans of a revival.

  6. Henry, I would love to see that one too! I just couldn't make it to Stuttgart at that time. I think Andrew Richards hinted at something about a DVD being possible at some point but I haven't heard anything beyond that.