Posts Tagged ‘Deborah Polaski’

A Magnificent Martyrdom

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on June 4, 2014 at 2:27 pm

Review – Dialogues des Carmélites (Royal Opera House, Thursday 29 May 2014)

Blanche de la Force – Sally Matthews
Sister Constance of St Denis – Anna Prohaska
Mother Marie of the Incarnation – Sophie Koch
Madame Lidoine – Emma Bell
Madame de Croissy – Deborah Polaski
Sister Mathilde – Catherine Carnby
Mother Jeanne of the Child Jesus – Elizabeth Sikora
Father Confessor – Alan Oke
Chevalier de la Force – Yann Beuron and Luis Gomes
Marquis de la Force – Thomas Allen
Monsieur Javelinot – John Bernays
First Commissary – David Butt Philip
Second Commissary – Michel de Souza
Thierry – Neil Gillespie
Officer – Ashley Roches
Gaoler – Craig Smith

The Carmelite Nuns – Yvonne Barclay, Katy Batho, Tamsin Coombs,
Eileen Hamilton, Anne Osborne, Deborah Peake Jones, Louise Armit, Andrea Hazell, Elizabeth Key, Kate McCarney & Deborah Pearce.

Royal Opera House Chorus
Royal Opera House Community Ensemble
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Director – Robert Carsen
Set Designs – Michael Levine
Costume Designs – Falk Bauer
Lighting Design – Jean Kalman
Movement – Philippe Giraudeau

Simon Rattle (Conductor)

Never has a martyrdom been so beautiful, heartrending and – in fact – ecstatic as Robert Carsen’s production of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites.

A production previously seen in Holland and Vienna, it has finally arrived at Covent Garden and hopefully it will become a regular revival.

I admit that it takes a while for my ear to get accustomed to Poulenc, but Covent Garden has assembled a cast that has done justice to Poulenc’s music and Carsen beautifully balances the brutality of the closing moments with moments of simplicity, grace, devotion and, indeed love.

Personally I don’t think that there is a leading role. Almost as if Poulenc himself was reflecting the humility of the Carmelite religious order, each of the main characters has equal musical and emotional importance.

And while the diction – and let’s face it French isn’t the easiest of languages to sing in – wasn’t always perfect, each and every performance was unremittingly committed.

But for me it was Emma Bell’s Madame Lidoine who portrayed the greatest depth of musical intelligence and human emotion. Vocally she was outstanding, eloquently shaping Poulenc’s often-unusual vocal lines without any hint of strain at either ends of her range. And her command of the stage – even when stripped of her habit – was absolute.

The remaining principle characters were just as strong in their musicianship and portrayal. Sophie Koch’s steely tone perfectly matched the religious militancy of Mother Marie of the Incarnation and offered a welcome contrast vocally not only to the warmth of Emma Bell, but also with Anna Prohaska’s Sister Constance of St Denis. In her debut she found the right balance between her character’s sense of youthful exuberance and naive devotion and vocally her bright voice shone over the composer’s delicate orchestral palette.

Similarly, Sally Matthews shone as Blanche. Vocally there was some tightness at the top of her range but this did not detract from a performance of total commitment and passion. It was devastating to see her reduced in her own home, so skillfully acted by the soprano, before the final scene.

And how amazing was Deborah Polaski? This was a Madame de Croissy of both deep conviction and disappointment in God. As with her performance as The Nurse recently in Munich, she exuded musical confidence and experience as she coloured her vocal line with authority, combined with acting that invested her character with dignity til her last breath.

Yann Beuron bravely performed the First Act as the Chevalier de la Force and even though he was clearly vocally indisposed his performance was again both musically intelligent and well shaped. But plaudits must go to Luis Gomes for stepping in for the Second Act. His voice showed vocal promise and he seemed comfortably enough in Poulenc’s idiosyncratic music.

And when I talked of love earlier on, I was suddenly struck on the first night by the fact that this crucial meeting between the Chevalier and Blanche was nothing if it was not a love duet – albeit between siblings – but nonetheless about love.

Of the remaining men, both Thomas Allen and Alan Oke – again slightly indisposed on the first night – gave forthright and confident performances and the ensemble of Nuns gave excellent support to the main characters.

From the podium, Rattle drew some superlative playing from the orchestra and singing from the chorus. As I said, I find it takes my ear time to get accustomed to Poulenc’s music. The opening Act might have taken a while to settle down, but by the Second Act and beyond where clearly Poulenc’s music becomes richer and more supple, Rattle coaxed from the orchestra that delicate, vibrant ‘French’ sound world, reveling in the details of the score, but never losing momentum.

And complementing Poulenc’s music and the strong performances on stage was Carsen’s vision.

And as ever with this director, it was a finely nuanced production where the devil was in the beautifully observed and often stark detail.

The overall austerity of the set heightened the focus on dramatic details too numerous to go into here. But the opening of the Second Act where Madame Croissy’s body was made up of flowers; the ‘human cloister’ created by the Nuns in the Second Act or the menacing use of the crowds to create either virtual walls or a tsunami of across the stage to so effectively change the set demonstrated how thoughtfully Carsen had approached this production.

But if there was one scene above all else that captured the essence of this opera – its humanity, its austerity and its sense of oppression – it was when Madame Lidoine spoke to her sisters before the end. No walls, no distractions, simply a single shaft of light that so effectively created the sense of the Nuns, cramped in a cell, and stoically facing their unavoidable fate.

Indeed, Jean Kalman’s lighting designs were critical to the success of this production. Throughout he masterfully conjured up both a sense of incredible space – during the service in the convent for example – or that sense of suffocation.

But above all, it was the humanity of the characters themselves that made this production stand out. There was an authenticity to the Nuns’ own gestures and movements that showed how carefully Carsen had approached Carmélites and – I think – what impact the opera had on him personally.

At this point I would like to congratulate the Royal Opera for finding such a brilliant solution to that difficult conundrum – finding a way to integrate outreach work with productions. Initiatives are often impactful yet small scale, but with the Community Ensemble they found a way to make an incredible and valuable impact.

I hope it is something they don’t lose sight of.

Of course it is the ending of the opera that is most famous. In previous productions, directors have had the nuns walk off stage to their deaths. But here Carsen not only reinforced the brutality but also heightened the spirituality of their demise. As they walked towards their deaths, it wasn’t only the singing that underlined their faith, but the way that Carsen integrated the mystical, almost sensuous dance movements that some Carmelite orders were known for.

This production of Dialogues des Carmélites was a rare thing – a marriage of the highest standards of musical performance with a production that drew the finest portrait of a human tragedy.


Ladies Night In A Foggy FroSch

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on December 6, 2013 at 4:03 pm

Review – Die Frau ohne Schatten (Live stream from Bayerische Staatsoper, Sunday 1 December 2013)

Die Kaiserin/Empress – Adrianne Pieczonka
Der Kaiser/Emperor – Johan Botha
Barak, the Dyer – Wolfgang Koch
The Dyer’s Wife – Elena Pankratova
Die Amme/ Nurse – Deborah Polaski
The Messenger – Sebastian Holecek
The Falcon – Eri Nakamura
The Dyer’s Brothers – Tim Kuypers, Christian Rieger & Matthew Peña
Watchmen – Andrea Borghini, Rafal Pawnuk & Leonard Bernad
Voices of the Unborn – Laura Tatulescu, Heike Grötzinger, Tara Erraught, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, Eri Nakamura & Okka von der Damerau

Director – Krzysztof Warlikowski
Stage & Costume – Malgorzata Szczesniak
Lighting – Felice Ross
Choreography – Claude Bardouil
Video – Denis Guéguin
Animation – Kamil Polak
Dramaturgy – Miron Hakenbeck

Orchestra of the Bayerische Staatsoper

Kirill Petrenko (Conductor)

Hats off once again to the Bayerische Staatsoper for their commitment to live-streaming opera from their magnificent opera house. The last live performance I watch was Kriegenberg’s production of Götterdämmerung with Nina Stemme. On that occasion it was via my laptop but this time round I managed to stream it via Apple TV and I would strongly recommend it. The quality was superb.

Having just returned from seeing Weinicke’s production at the Metropolitan Opera and with Carsen’s incredible production still fresh in my mind, I was interested to see Warlikowski’s take on this dark fairy-tale so laden with symbolism.

More of the production later because what made this an exceptional production was the incredibly high level of performance and musicianship on stage and in the pit.

At the heart of the production were stunning performances of the Kaiserin, Nurse and Dyer’s Wife – namely Adrianne Pieczonka, Deborah Polaski and Elena Pankratova. Personally of all the productions I have seen on stage, they represented an almost perfect trio of singers in these roles.

Adrianne Pieczonka – who was so mesmerizing as Chrysosthemis in London recently – brought a regal humanity to the role of the Kaiserin. Vocally she was simply incredible – secure throughout her range and bringing a range of colour and depth to the role that was evident even ‘down-stream’. I hold that she is one of the great Strauss sopranos on stage today and I just wish we could see more of her in the UK. Indeed it is a shame that she isn’t reprising this role in the Guth production at Covent Garden next year.

Deborah Polaski was surprise casting for me at least. A soprano I associate more readily with the role of Elektra and Isolde my initial skepticism was immediately dispelled with her first appearance. Not only did she negotiate this trickiest of Strauss roles with great musical authority but within the constraints of Warlikowski’s production she was hypnotic as the malevolent and controlling Nurse.

As Barak’s Wife, Elena Pankratova’s rich and resonant soprano was ideal. Again there wasn’t any weakness in her vocal range even when she was singing above the full orchestra. I am looking forward to seeing her reprise this role at Covent Garden.

As in New York both the Emperor and Barak were well cast. Johan Botha made the most of Emperor’s appearance, singing with a bright and alert tone. Similarly Wolfgang Koch’s lyrical singing, full-bodied when required, was beautifully suited to the end of the First Act – possibly the most beautiful music Strauss ever wrote for the male voice.

And as ever with Munich, the other roles were well cast, particularly Eri Nakamura as The Falcon and Sebastian Holecek as the Messenger.

In the pit. Kirill Petrenko matched the quality of the singing on stage by coaxing superlative playing from the orchestra. Unlike at the Met, Petrenko gave Strauss’ music the space to breathe and flex without ever seemingly drowning out the singers. That wonderful moment in the Second Act for the lower strings was magical as it should be.

In the same month that Opera magazine has dedicated the issue to RegieTheater – with enlightening interviews with Barrie Kosky, Graham Vick and Sam Brown – I have to admit that I wasn’t completely convinced by Warlikowski’s vision regardless of what directorial genre it was.

There were some moments, and motifs that were striking but for me there wasn’t the cohesive narrative of Carsen; the contrast and strength of characterization of Weinicke or Holten’s use of modern iconography that gave these three productions their strength in terms of storytelling.

Even before the music had started Warlikowski opened with scenes from Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad. I have to admit I didn’t immediately recognise the footage but once it did create a certain sense of expectation. The film’s narrative is – rightly – confusing with the barriers between reality and dreams vague. As the opera proper started we found ourselves in a room complete with a bed, chaise longue, fish tank and shutters all in view. The tiled wall – as well as the injection given to the Kaiserin – hinted at a medical establishment, but with the stuffed deer it was also reminiscent of an abattoir. There were dinner-suited servants and the Kaiser and Kaiserin clearly dressed as members of the wealthy classes. I didn’t get the symbolism of the Kaiser’s over-sized cross as there was a dearth of religious imagery elsewhere so that in fact it simply felt like a costume choice.

Barak and his Wife were hardly the poverty-stricken characters they are often portrayed as and Warlikowski stripped the three brothers of their scripted handicaps as far as I could see, and instead made one of them the subject of fits without explanation. However the lust they displayed for their brother’s wife was a smart – and somewhat chilling – insight.

While the transition between the two worlds was smartly done there was in reality little change of scene between the two. Was Warlikowski therefore implying that this was in fact all in the Kaiserin’s mind? Or our minds? Or, as they put the Nurse in a straitjacket, her mind?

The use – or over-use – of children through the production was also intriguing. The Falcon-As-Child was an interesting concept, especially vis-à-vis his relationship with the Kaiser. As in Carsen’s production, Warlikowski’s use of a ‘younger’ Kaiserin was a powerful image but it felt that his character was outside the events unfolding on stage. And while the use of children – and then adults – sporting bird’s heads was disturbing it didn’t add up to anything, although it was a nice touch to have them play cards – I entertained the thought that they were playing Strauss favourite card game of Skat.

Warlikowski’s portrayal of Keikobad was also disappointing – a man so old he was doubled over at ninety degrees. Hardly an Emperor to be obeyed let alone feared.

I have yet to see a convincing end to FroSch. Carsen created an purgatory-style world, Holten opted for images of fetuses and Weinicke brought down the stage lights. Warlikowski’s was visually arresting with the shadows of children reflected on the back wall. This image would have been so much more effective had it now been for the four main characters inexplicably seated to all intents and purposes at a café table drinking champagne.

Thankfully, he had clearly spent some time with the leads in terms of their characterization. It was particularly telling in the relationship between Barak and his Wife as well as Polaski’s portrayal of the Nurse.

However while there is no denying that Warlikowski’s vision was visually arresting, as a cohesive piece of story-telling his approach seemed too disjointed. Ideas were not worked through and on occasion it seemed that some were juxtaposed – thrown together almost – for visual effect rather than for a narrative purpose.

Ultimately however it was the high performance standards – particularly of the leading sopranos – that made this FroSch memorable. Once again the Bayerische Staatsoper must be congratulated not only for another incredible set of performances only slightly marred by a foggy production but also for their live stream strategy.

Next up from Munich will be La forza del destino with Harteros and Kaufmann on December 28.


Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

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