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Dialogues des Carmelites by Francis Poulenc at Pitt Street Uniting Church

Pic by Rob Studdert
Pic by Simon Ross
Pic by Simon Ross
Pic by Simon Ross/caption] Pic by Simon Ross
Pic by Simon Ross
Pic by Simon Ross
Pic by Simon Ross

Dialogues des Carmelites by Francis Poulenc is a truly impressive production, both in terms of its lyrics and composition, by by Francis Poulenc, and the outstanding performance qualities of cast and orchestra of the Gente, Gente!  Opera Company.

The musical direction of Joanna Drimatis brought the rich score and orchestration to life. The audience was increasingly captivated by the range of the piece. If the Gente, Gente! Company seeks, as they say, to bring opera to the people, through quality production, then the production is a giant step in that direction.

It is impossible to rank the cast, they all impress in their respective characterising the nuns, clergy,   officers and members of the public. Sarah Cherlin plays the determined character of Blanche de la Force, the one time aristocrat who takes refuge in the Carmelite Order in the early days of the French Revolution. Sarahs voice captured the sincerity and difficulty of living in those times. Her story is the shows main singular narrative. Her dialogues with Katrina Mackenzie (as Sister Constance) capture earnest exploration of ideas and motives embedded in those historical times.

Joanna Dionis Ross (Madame Croissey), Lucy Bailes (Mother Jeanne of the Child Jesus), Sophie Blades (Sister Mathilde), Damien Noyce (Father confessor),  Matthew Gaskin (First Officer)  – these are just some of the leads who are all highly accomplished and well cast in Poulencs structured and finely wrought window into revolutionary France.

This is a big show – filling its big ecclesiastical set (Pitt Street Uniting Church previously Congregational) with a spectrum of musical style, that included religious music that became the hallmark of Poulencs. It was a collaboration made in heaven so to speak, for the current church to collaborate with this historical narrative. There was a large ensemble who produced several exquisite chorus numbers. This production has artistic depth and breadth.

The plot both engages and invites interpretation, while inviting more authenticating. Was the revolution so anti religious and anti catholic that it would execute a group of unarmed nuns? The nuns surrender their cloister and clothes but keep their vows – was no compromise possible with the revolutionary leaders? Can we see female oppression in the male world of Robespierre or was the revolution aspire for female equality?

Stage Director Bec Moret located action effectively across several levels of the Pitt Street space. The production uses open spaces in congregation to site the orchestra as well as feature the entrance of revolutionary figures. Apparently in history the rowdy crows at the guillotine were silenced by the joyful singing of the nuns in their last previous time before death. The conclusion of the show is directed with choreographed rhythm and poignant singing as nuns disappear one by one into elevated ante room of church, as the falling guillotine blade can be heard for each one.

This scene reminded one of the conclusion of Sydney Philharmonic Choirs Night Songs, at Coney Island, Luna Park, when World War One children walked up a staircase next to the high slide or slippery dip, to a top room shrouded in smoke. In both works there were tears in audience, in both works gained through keen use of in situ grandeur that could not be achieved on stage.

Dialogues des Carmelites is a religious, political and feminist jewel. It is surprising a state company has not picked this up. After Saturdays show I am sure this will happen.

I have only one reservation with this production, and it is a serious one. The lighting (and projection of titles) was simply not up the standard of the rest of the production. A large simple  toothpaste white light harshly washed out the lovely nuances of the 1832 architecture – along with highlights and shadows of action and expression. Transitions between two or three lights had no dimmers – one/off changes were abrupt. There was a lower setting for the white light (or from one other light), which was enough, but for some reason that annoying gloss white was used a lot.

The high lumen church projector broke down before the opening performance and a domestic proctor used. The white light washed out the text of the subtitles. The text could be read under the lower setting? Why wasnt this done? It was quite essential to read the subtitles and follow layers of debate and narrative. Why not hire a projector if necessary? Or site the domestic one closer to the screen? A lighting designer and operator was credited in the program. More could be expected. One star was lost as a result.

It was such a pleasure to see the casting and effort invested in this work. The company did justice to the rich themes that remain relevant today. Like many independent companies this production and company deserve further future opportunities and support, and bigger audiences.

Featured image by Rob Studdert



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