QSOC engages in lovely Dialogues

The Queen’s Student Opera Company’s production of Les Dialogues des Carmélites takes centre stage at Grant Hall this weekend.
The Queen’s Student Opera Company’s production of Les Dialogues des Carmélites takes centre stage at Grant Hall this weekend.
Clever set design and costuming make for a wonderful night at the opera.
Clever set design and costuming make for a wonderful night at the opera.

For the next two nights, Grant Hall will be filled with executions, revolution and cloistered nuns.

The Queen’s Student Opera Company (QSOC) production of Les Dialogues des Carmélites, playing tonight and tomorrow at Grant Hall, features a combination of these unlikely themes. Unlike most well-known operas—including those previously produced by QSOC—Poulenc’s 1956 work centers on religious devotion rather than love, hate and human relationships. Conversations about martyrdom, religion and death replace love duets and arias. With Les Dialogues des Carmélites, QSOC shows that it is as comfortable dealing with these traditionally un-operatic topics as it is on more familiar terrain.

QSOC, founded in 1997, is the only entirely student-run opera company in North America. After expanding the scope of the company, QSOC moved its production from Grant Hall to the Grand Theatre in 2004. However, due to the renovations taking place at the Grand this year, QSOC has temporarily returned to its original location.

Although Grant Hall is not its preferred venue, QSOC has transformed the venue into a theatre space, complete with an orchestra pit, light galleries and stage wings. The stage—which remains exposed throughout the show—is simply set with platforms decorated with crosses, designed by Mike Walker.

The story of Les Dialogues des Carmélites takes place during the French Revolution. Soprano Kim Hooper plays Blanche, a young French aristocrat, who joins a convent of Carmelite nuns in order to shield herself from political upheaval. However, as religious groups were amongst those persecuted during the revolution, Blanche fails to find solace in the convent. In the climactic last scene of the opera, Blanche and her fellow nuns are executed by guillotine.

Les Dialogues des Carmélites focuses on Blanche’s story, but the Carmelite nuns are the backbone of the production. The ensemble work of the 15 women is one of the highlights of the opera, and the nuns’ Ave Maria and Salve Regina chorales were precise and stunningly beautiful. Both Lindsay Hull as Mère Marie and Laura Duffy as the Second Prioress were solid, believable and technically proficient.

Hooper, BMus ’07, shows great promise with her portrayal of Blanche. Her sweet, young-sounding voice is well-suited for her naïve and innocent character. Although some of Hooper’s high register sounded tight and her mannerisms were initially wooden, both her voice and her gestures loosened as the opera progressed.

The two performances that truly shone were Laura Redekop as the First Prioress and Sarah Angus as Soeur Constance. Redekop’s portrayal of the First Prioress’ death was spine-chilling, and her gorgeous, resonant alto voice was perfectly suited to a more mature character. Angus gave a peppy, mischievous, and light-hearted portrayal of Soeur Constance, which contrasted nicely with Blanche’s piety and the seriousness of the opera’s political backdrop.

Although there were few male parts in the opera, QSOC’s men proved that they were just as talented as their female counterparts. The opening scene of the opera, featuring impressive baritone Joshua Lawson and honey-voiced tenor Adam Bishop, showcased their striking voices and established the high calibre of the production’s singers.

The activities of the singers onstage were supported and enhanced by the orchestra, energetically led by Kevin de Melo. Save for some tuning problems in the lower strings, the orchestra performed well and accurately followed de Melo’s precise cues. Several clarinet solos by Logan Bert and the French horn effects and fanfares were particularly notable.

The one note of unprofessionalism in this otherwise polished production were the scene changes. Because of the limitations of Grant Hall, the cast and crew were forced to move scenery and props across the semi-darkened stage after each scene. Although there was no possible way to avoid this situation, these distracting scene changes shattered the theatrical illusion of the production.

The cast and crew were victims of their space during set changes, but on many other occasions throughout the show, Artistic Director Jessica Derventzis made excellent use of Grant Hall’s ample space. In one scene, angry French citizens were placed on one of the upper balconies, and in the final scene, the Carmelites walked through the audience to the chilling sound of the slicing guillotine. These off-stage moments were the strongest of the production, and are a credit to Derventzis’ creativity and originality.

Walker’s lighting design was simple and effective, especially the red-tinted wash during the final scene and the stained glass window effect of the Carmelite abby.

Les Dialogues des Carmélites is a very difficult opera to stage, though QSOC’s powerful, graceful production would suggest otherwise.

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