The Canadian Opera Company’s spring productions were all about the bloodied, bed-ready ingenues this season. Dialogues des Carmelites doesn’t actually use stage blood, nor are the white gowns the nuns wear as they ready for death technically nightgowns, I suppose, but the point stands. These are all wronged and/or wronging ladies with big, fierce “bring it on” arias, begetting or lamenting the spilling of blood but commanding the stage as they do.
The first two heroines are oppressed young women who are driven to madness and end up with the blood of would-be lovers on their hands. The title character of Lucia di Lammermoor (the sublime Anna Christy) is costumed literally like a doll as she’s ordered about by her awkwardly sexualized big brother (Brian Mulligan, he of beautiful voice and bizarre obsessive villain acting). Her dashing Scotsman of a soulmate (lovely tenor Stephen Costello) enters dramatically through designer Charles Edwards’s awesomely versatile giant window and the over-used opera plot of threatened lovers and forced marriage to another man commences. The production drags dramatically as it hits the plot-moving second act but the utter brilliance of Christy and inventive direction of David Alden collide in a third act of thrillingly high stakes and thoughtful moments of artistry. Portraits of ancestors linger over the action of Lammermoor in a way that supports the brilliance of staging Lucia’s meltdown as a theatrically observed performance while also throwing a wasted nod of sympathy towards big brother Enrico as he, however misguidedly, attempts to resurrect the family from the mistakes of its elders. The COC’s strong chorus shines in this excellent production with standout performances from unknown ensemble members playing entertainingly detailed drunken observers, among other things. The strange melodrama of Enrico and the confounding over-stylization of Lucia’s companion Alisa are my only complaints in an opera with a third act so thrilling that the memory of a dull second disappears.
Salome, in a reversal of fortunes, is something of a twisted shadow of Lucia in her own self-titled property. She has none of the former’s charm and twice the homicidal rage. Director Atom Egoyan goes to great lengths to humanize the infamous Judean Princess by characterizing her world as inescapably predatory, though the fact remains that she demands the head of an innocent man on a platter for the crime of not giving her the time of day. Though performed competently and adorned with such diverting pleasures as the moment when a bowlful of oranges roll dramatically down the diagonal stage, there is little to Salome that is notable beyond the grotesqueness of its story and the fact that it is somehow too long despite being only 100 minutes in length. I enjoyed the small chorus of Jewish scholars played with great energy by Adrian Thompson, Michael Colvin, Michael Barrett, Adam Luther and Jeremy Milner, but no amount of dramatic projections and symbolic puppetry could make me like anything else at all about Salome.
A welcome thematic turn comes, however, with Dialogues des Carmelites, a somewhat strange, sometimes draggy, ultimately evocative 20th century opera about the execution of religious figures during the French Revolution. The story doesn’t lend itself easily to the medium but it’s that very fact that makes it refreshing- there are no vengeful Counts, no scorned lovers, no plot that everyone’s seen countless times. Here we get a principal female not at all more engaging than Lucia- Blanche’s main function is to run away countless times and return for the predictably sentimental climax- but, unlike fellow sopranos Anna Christy and Erika Sunnegardh, Isabel Bayrakdarian is not tasked with carrying the action mostly on her own. She’s joined by a compelling assemblage of nuns who- though visibly hard to differentiate due to the mandatory burden of habits and intriguing choice of uniformly short hairstyles (when the habits strikingly come off)- are wonderfully, universally strong. The incomparable Adrianne Pieczonka (a 2012 My Theatre Award nominee for Tosca) is the standout as Second Prioress Madame Lidoine in the heartbreaking prison scene, following up Judith Forst’s triumphant turn as her expiring predecessor Madame de Croissy. Designer Michael Levine’s daring use of a massive, silent chorus to define space instead of spending The COC’s vast resources on a showy set is remarkably effective, coming to a head most thrillingly in the opera’s season-stealing final scene. As the titular self-sacrificing heroines meet their historical end, director Robert Carsen leans on nothing but his imagination, Francis Poulenc’s score, and the tremendous voices of his principal ensemble to end the piece and The COC’s 2012/13 season on a truly beautiful note.