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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Your Lesbian Tai Chi Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore: Dialogues des Carmélites at Lyric Opera

So a Jew and an atheist/recovering Catholic walk into a 20th-century opera about nuns during the French Revolution on St. Patrick's Day . . . Mad Lib that . . . IF YOU DARE!

So, Wire Monkey Mother, the sister of my heart, does not, as a rule, enjoy 20th century opera. She does, however, enjoy escaping the wilds of Kansas occasionally. Because, you know, her Lifetime Fitness just doesn't have valet parking. Can you believe that's not in contravention of the Geneva Convention? Anyway, back when I had what might have been the only remaining ticket for Die Fledermaus because I'd neglected to hunt up an opera companion, her husband asked if I'd take his wife, please. And so a plan was hatched: Hot Lesbian Subtext, then chocolate.

I'd had a raging crisis of self-loathing while getting ready and thus left the house really late. M, thankfully, offered to drive me to the red line (he was meeting us for post-subtextual chocolate, and I thus didn't need to drive into the sea of drunken green people), which I duly boarded. My current knitting project is really too big to be practically portable, so I'd brought a book for the relatively short trip downtown. Sadly, I had chosen Wil Wheaton's Dancing Barefoot, which happens to begin with an emotionally raw story about retrieving something from his beloved great aunt's home shortly after her death. Red eyes, puffy face, and runny make-up really turned my self-confidence crisis around. Thanks, Wil!

Our evening began at ristorante we, because WMM was on the ball enough to score a reservation when we were threatened with trying our luck in the bar area at Rivers, my usual pre-Opera haunt. We's food was fine, but not remarkable (except for the outlandish size of the pork belly that came with WMM's risotto. We did, however, enjoy the half bottle of wine, courtesy of her husband J, and the red velvet settee was the ideal place to start an evening rife with lesbian subtext. (See how neatly I avoided mentioning that I almost didn't find the place, because I'd failed to note (a) its name and (b) its address? I thought it was at 171 W. Adams [it wasn't] and that its name had a "W" in it, so I very nearly got hung up at "17 W at the Berghoff.")

But dinner was achieved without incident, and a cab was procured to whisk us off to the Civic Opera House for a cheerful evening with Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites. By the time we were in our seats, the outer curtain had already been raised to reveal that the wings and upstage were completely masked with aggressively nonreflective, battleship grey flats (I think I owe an apology to the Hunnish set designer for Orfeo ed Euridice: Production Designer Robert Carsen seems to be the warrior for monochrome). On the stage, 15 little nuns' habits were laid out in . . . well, not 2 straight lines, but yes I went to the Madeline place. I am, after all, only human. But, hey, WMM was the first to comment that some of our soon-to-be-dead sisters were big and some were little.

This is the third production that Carsen has designed for Lyric in just two seasons (The aforementioned Orfeo, plus this season's Iphigénie en Tauride [another C. Willibald Gluck special], which I did not see). I ended up liking Orfeo design overall, and Carsen's streak with me holds. I'm not sure whether the credit should go to him or to set designer Michael Levine for the masking walls, and I'm not sure whether or not I should be committed for worrying about who gets credit for grey walls, but bear with me: These weren't just any grey walls; they were Caligari grey, German Expressionist grey. Like how much more grey could they be? And when the side walls raised—just barely enough to clear the head of the tallest player entering—it was downright tectonic.

There wasn't much beyond walls (but what walls they were!) in the way of set design. Every other element of the set design was either movable, human (which, generally speaking, also implies movability), or shadow. On the movable, nonhuman front, we had all-purpose A-frame benches and tables that could be assembled to suggest any interior monastery space, or the ruins of La Maison de la Force when upended. The only piece of furniture other than these rough-hewn pieces was the last provincial chair (which managed to be appropriately gaudy, despite being entirely upholstered entirely in shades of grey) in France, property of the Baron de la Force himself. And, it seems, no Robert Carsen design would be complete without receptacles for transporting fire and making Og very nervous.

I flatter myself that my gentle readers are curious about my assertion that there were human elements to the set design. This is not a wacky metaphor originating in my fevered brain. Carsen (and, presumably, Didier Kersten, Stage Director for the revival of this production) literally circumscribed smaller spheres of interaction within the cavernous (yet claustrophobic—all hail The Grey Walls!) space of the stage using humans as the boundaries: For example, as Madame de Croissy lays dying, six nuns lay prone, forming the perimeter of a small rectangle around her death bed, and Jean Kalman's lighting design reduced the entire world to something no bigger than that small, rigidly defined space; in contrast, as the Chevalier and Baron de la Force discuss their worries about Blanche, they are very nearly forced off the stage by the mass (sometimes heaving with movement, other times deathly still) of chorus members who have corralled them downstage center.

In the latter case, the device is taken a step further, as the aristocratic space is defined by four servants, each occupying the pool of light from a very tight spot. Given the setting (France, during the Reign of Terror), this servants-as-furniture visual gag could be construed as a rather obvious joke. However, I think that all concerned with the design have something larger and more interesting to say with this device.

Take, for example, another instance in which the line is blurred between which humans are standing in for inanimate objects, and which humans are players in the scene, whether active or passive: In act II, scene iii, Blanche has been granted permission to speak with her brother, and Madame Lidoine has ordered Mother Marie ("you and only you") to listen in. All the nuns who have been onlookers during the conversation between the two women pull their veils over their faces and step into a straight line at center running from upstage to downstage. Mother Marie does the same, become the downstage-most post in the human fence. At the end of their conversation, Mother Marie steps immediately from the line and continues the conversation with Blanche that the Chevalier has just abandoned. Still later, the stark geometry of the human boundaries we've seen so far is contrasted with the staging of the prison scene in which the nuns are heaped haphazardly within an extremely small and stark square of light, with only Madame Lidoine distinguishable as an individual at the center.

Taken as a whole, the implication of the human set is that no conversation is ever set against an inanimate backdrop. And that works beautifully with the structure and form of Poulenc's music. Every discrete section of the music is literally a dialogue—a speech act carried out between pairs of entities, whether they are individuals or audiences. Our dialogues are bounded, but also shaped and facilitated, by our communities, our social context, and our selves in the largest sense.

This is not meant to imply that there was no snarking about the human furniture. At intermission, both WMM and I wondered about the long-term implications of remaining in crocodile for the entirety of an opera death (and Poulenc is in no hurry for Madame de Croissy to kick it once and for all): Did any of the nuns nod off? Were they plotting knitting projects in their heads? Doing fractals with George Bradfute? And just how many ceramic Baby Jesii did the propsfolk have to go through before they found the ones whose heads would break off and roll so exactly to the edge of the stage, then stop? On a more serious note, I thought that Blanche and the Chevalier trading "sides of the fence" during their dialogue was a bit obvious and on the nose. Outside becomes in, the brave brother is forced to flee, while the sister living in pathological fear stands her ground, blah, blah. Yes, I get it.

As much as I've managed to say about the unrelentingly minimalist set design, there's not a tremendous amount to say about Falk Bauer's costumes. He himself notes: "For this production, it's important that the costumes don't play a major role - they're just simple and appropriate. . . . It's also important that everyone in the crowd scenes must seem to be a specific character." The nuns' habits were fine, and although WMM had high hopes of getting extra points for The Tribe by catching Bauer out on the novice's habits being the same as those of the full-fledged nuns, both Blanche and Constance had the appropriate white veils rather than black. For my part, I will cop to some difficulty distinguishing Mother Marie from Madame Lidoine (who, really, shows up out of nowhere) without visual cues.

The brightly colored costumes of the Chevalier and the Baron, although welcome respite from the greyscale, were maybe a bit too too. Bauer's note about everyone in the crowd being a specific character is interesting, though. In the opening scene, the chorus is, on the one hand, this monolithic thing surrounding the aristocracy, on the other, they are individuals. They're all dressed in black, white, and (of course) grey, but their suits are cut differently. They are bald and long haired. They are fat, they are thin. They are individuals as much as they are The Terror. And just as the humans-as-set-pieces serves the music and narrative well, Bauer's success in the costume design is crucial when Poulenc writes for individual men later in the opera.

Musically, I was not sure what to expect, but I was prepared to cringe in sympathy for WMM (I think I'm reasonably cringe-proof for my own part at this point). For the most part, though, Dialogues is remarkably tuneful and listenable. There aren't a lot of in-your-face, I AM MODERN, BEYAAATCH, shennanigans. Pompous Essayist Roger Pines notes:

IN creating a musical framework for Bernanos's spare, elegant language, Poulenc went back 350 years to Monteverdi [Note: I have Return of Ulysses next week, so I'll be back to bitch slap Roger for this, I'm sure—Ed.], mixing that inspiration with the influence of Mussorgsky and Debussy.

In fact, there's so little self conscious modernity in the music that both WMM and I were startled by the "and now . . . a PIANO SOLO to awake those of you who've nodded off" and the regular commentary by the XYLOPHONE OF DOOM, because they were unexpected every single time.

In terms of structure and pacing, Dialogues is most decidedly post-Wagner. There are large swaths of singable tunes, but they are tightly bound to the conversational interludes and passing scenes that flank them. This is not an opera that is easy to interrupt with applause (and although the audience was quite enthusiastic and still there at the end, for the most part, there was not a single ovation other than at intermission and the end). To circle back from the opera in general to this specific production, again, the production, set, and costume designs, together with the stage direction, work flawlessly with Poulenc's vision. The costumes laid out on the stage before the opening scene are taken up by the crowd, and the nuns appear from within the crowd for scene ii. Exits and entrances are accommodated by the walls smoothly and silently raising and lowering. The music and action glide unimpeded toward the inevitable.

Much is being made of how moving this opera is. Musically, I'm certainly on board. Narratively, I concur with the whispered assessment of WMM: It's all about The Crazy. All Crazy, All the Time. I mean, seriously, I'm down with inexplicable nervous complaints of the literary heroine as the next consumer of period fiction, but come on: Blanche enters a convent because she's frightened of her own shadow, but then she becomes inexplicably convinced that she is the only safe person in France—she, a member of multiple groups that are easily construed as anti-Revolution in a time when anti-Revolution was very broadly conceived.

More problematic is Mother Marie (a real shame, because dayum, that's one hell of a musical role). Through what I think WMM called "Catholic calculus," arrives at the conclusion that 15 virgin martyrs = many dead priests, and so the balance is maintained, so she might as well coerce the rest into taking the vow of martyrdom along with her.

Even poor Constance, who initially seems to at least have the excuse that she's either brain damaged or just not that bright (no one that happy is playing with all the Stations of the Cross, if you take my meaning), eventually starts to talk the talk. Roger "PE" Pines, Anna Christy [who sings Constance], and Eugenie Grunewald, who plays Sister Mathilde all comment on how Constance's maturation into a profound thinker is touching. I have to side with Blanche (at least Blanche in the synopsist's view):
[Constance] explains that she has always hoped for a short life, and that when she met Blanche, she knew that they would die together. Blanche is appalled.


Many of Pines' points about the importance, relevance, and uniqueness of Dialogues are well taken: The emotions and phenomena with which Poulenc is dealing are almost wholly original. Dialogues is, in many ways, What Happened to Thais After She Left Egypt (without the extended S&M orgy in the middle [is it possible that I've never blogged about proposing this play to my theater group, without having read it all the way to the end, thus resulting in MST3K levels of wackiness?]). I understand why the story was moving to Gertrud von le Fort and to Poulenc himself after the revival of his Catholicism.

The story is just a mess of irrational decisions that don't particularly speak to faithless old me, I guess. Moreover, the points that might have moved me—the tragic loss of real, individual lives, the wrongheadedness of The Terror, the intolerance, and the trading of one kind of tyranny for another—get lost because it's more or less turtles of tyranny all the way down. The guillotine is just as sharp when it's the Savior what brung you.

I am genuinely saddened that my disengagement from the story was complicated by what I saw as the lone false note in the staging of this production. At the end, as the nuns are led to their deaths, they have been forced to shed their habits, so they are in loose white chemises. The blocking was such that as they sing the "Salve Regina," there were two rings of five nuns each with one nun in the center (Constance is one of the central nuns, I cannot recall the other) and Madame Lidoine was downstage and centered between the two rings (remember: We were missing Mother Marie and Blanche at this point).

The choreography during the "Salve" was . . . unfortunate . . . you can put them in whatever get ups you like, 13 women doing synchronized movement just cries out for pompons. Moreover, the synchronized movement was some kind of terrible hybrid of yoga, tai chi, and the hustle. Hence the subject line. As the "Salve" was repeated, a rapid, dynamic roll on the snare evoked the snick of the guillotine (quite effectively, too), and with each iteration, one of the women would slowly drop out of the choreography, sink to the floor, and roll herself into, inevitably and yet still unfortunately, a cruciform pose (supine, arms extended to the sides at shoulder height). Now, the mimicry and inversion of the habits laid out before the opera's opening mitigated this incredibly tired symbolism, but not a lot. And the goofy nature of the last 10 minutes or so is rendered really tragic by the fact that the music is, truly, quite beautiful. Even Blanche's "Veni Creator," ubercrazy as it is, just hits hard and deep in the best possible way. Until she launches into the YoChiTle.

Most of the performers in this production are pretty well-known to me. Of course I'm a giant Isabel Bayrakdarian fangirl, but this is Bayrakdarian as I've never seen her before. Thus far, she's been a charming, kittenish Zerlina, a fresh-faced force of nature as Marzelline, and a Euridice too cute to come off as being as neurotic as she ought to be. I also have her Joyous Light CD (Armenian liturgical music, and beautiful stuff it is), which is joyous as advertised. So weepy, dramatic, frail Bayrakdarian was new for me. To her credit, it was as if she had remade not only her voice, but her very self for the role. And yet the effervescent Bayrakdarian was there, injecting real joy and depth of feeling when it's appropriate to the story. IN her blurb she says:
In the finale, the other nuns are singing what they'd sing in times of need. Blanche is the only one who is glorifying God, as if she's going to a wedding instead of to her death.

It's well said (although she's polite about not making reference to the crazy in which Blanche is soaking at this point), and she does bring real beauty to that moment and the few others that call for it.

This new and wholly different Bayrakdarian was particularly strange when juxtaposed with Anna Christy's Sister Constance. I've only heard Christy as Muffin in A Wedding, which is tantamount to having not heard her at all. She was quite magnificent—a bizarre little crystal blue babbling brook in the middle of the cesspool that is both France and these characters. In fact, she was so light, lovely, and charming, that I had a momentary: "Wait . . . is that Bayrakdarian?!?" If any of the story is to be rescued from itself, Constance and Blanche must have a believable and immediate bond. No two could have managed that better than these two.

Madame Lidoine is perhaps the time that I've heard Patricia Racette and thought that the quality of her voice and the character of her vocal attack was well-suited to the role she's playing. I saw glimpses of it in her Liu, but she really made Madame Lidoine her own, both dramatically and vocally. Her work in the prison scene, specifically, and against (and with) Jane Irwin's Mother Marie, more generally, were particularly moving and delightful from a technical perspective.

Felicity Palmer (Madame de Croissy) and Jane Irwin (Mother Marie) were both new to me and what powerhouses they were! Certainly no one could accuse Palmer of shying away from the agony of de Croissy's death, and yet the fierce energy she poured into the performance made it handsome—truly, it was to be appreciated for its deep, robust qualities that are far afield from the delicacy and melodramatic notes that characterize the great female moments in most opera. Palmer also gets an appreciative nod from me for being the only one to poke at the story. She says of her character:
The prioress should be a shining example of someone going gladly to her death, but she is as afraid and unprepared as anyone else. Her physical agony is also a hit at Mother Marie, who always pumps the Carmelite line - 'You should just be happy to rest in Him.'

She certainly seems to love the characters on the canvas, but in a more critical, mature way that I could see myself getting behind . . . maybe . . . eventually.

Irwin, damn her eyes, kept making me like Mother Marie as a gruff, no nonsense curmudgeon who is really kind and sensible underneath, and Mother Marie is really the craziest of them all. I especially enjoyed Irwin's voice and characterization in act III when she is trying to reason with Blanche. Her voice takes on a smooth, wheedling quality that evokes some of the greatest, most seductive moments in (once again) male opera roles.

As for the genuine, bona fide males, of course there aren't many. Joseph Kaiser, who would have been my Romeo if I hadn't lucked into my tenor boyfriend and his beautiful opera hair, was our Chevalier [Uh, I am so very high. Kaiser was never to be my Romeo. It was Matthew Polenzani and I don't know how I made this branefart---Ed.]. Initially his voice didn't do much for me, possibly because much of it seemed to be swallowed up by the grey walls and the heaving mass of chorus members on stage. However, once Bayrakdarian's Blanche arrived on the scene, something sparked and I warmed to him greatly. His scene with her, solo, in act II was marvelous and heartfelt.

Dale Travis as the Baron de la Force was more successful in impressing me than he was as Geronte in Manon. It's possible that his bass-baritone is more paternal/avuncular than it is sexy, which is why it struck me wrong. Even as I type that, though, I think: "I know what those words mean individually, but together they make no sense!" Bass-baritone not sexy? Unpossible.

Dennis Petersen's Chaplain, in some ways, redeemed his Dr. Blind. The Chaplain, too, is perpetually worried and uncertain in the very moment when he is most needed as a strong leader. Petersen managed to trim his sails neatly between what the Chaplain is and what he ought to be. To his credit, he was confident enough that we would recognize some rough vocal edges as dramatic choices rather than mistakes, which might not be the choice that every singer makes in a role with pretty little material.

Other brief appearances were made by stalwart Lyric folks like Bryan Griffin, Phillip Dothard, Jordan Shanahan, and Kenneth Nichols. This opera is a veritable girls' sleepover party without the pillow fights and hair braiding (I'm guessing that the nuns are not above a few rounds of "light as a feather, stiff as a board" and a seance or two), so there's not much to say about the boys except that they were well-suited to achieve the goal of making every single person who appears a real, specific individual.

And because everyone, gentile or Jew, lesbian or het!girl, need a little soothing after so much death, after the opera, we met up with some fine-looking menfolk, my esteemed spouse, our friend Freshmaker, and his friend, who had been recently dubbed The Mack Daddy for the Chocolate Buffet
at the Peninsula. (Well, Freshmaker, being a freak, but a cute and gentlemanly one, joined us for the cheese plate at The Peninsula.)

The buffet was, somewhat disappointingly, less chocolatey than in the past, but still overwhelmingly delicious. The chocolate-ginger creme brulee was a stand-out as was the nearly-devoid-of-chocolate mandarin orange panna cotta. (I know, I can't believe it either: I'm praising something that had, essentially, only a chocolate swizzle stick in it.) Oh, and there were good truffles of uncertain origin and great hot chocolate this time, plus a yummy gooey chocolate cakelet with a sugared orange peel on top.

Conversely, the chocolate lollipop that had banana flavor inside just made Og angry, as did the presence of strawberries dipped in white chocolate only. Ditto the necessity of digging through the pile of chocolate-dipped pretzel sticks for the milk chocolate buried amidst the piles of those dipped in white chocolate, which rendered them about as useful as Lincoln Logs for consumption purposes.

On balance, a grand time was had by me and no one wound up dead, Catholic, or a virgin, so I'm calling the whole evening a success.

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