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EMAV Review: UNLV Opera gives a compelling, creative 'Carmelites' ★★★½

Photography by Dr. Ashley Stone

★★★½☆ - Satisfying

Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites is a haunting, angular, evocative piece that was served up with passionate precision by Linda Lister’s imaginative production.

Dr. Lister takes a plotline that challenges the strength of religious beliefs in France’s Reign of Terror and transports it on “fast forward” to the fear-filled milieu of “late 21st Century dystopia.” The concept has considerable merit, with a Hunger Games resonance about survival, morals, choices and heroism in the face of an abusive power structure.

Michael Genova has designed a handsomely spare, practical set with platforms, stairs, and levels that allowed director Lister to achieve varied and effective stage pictures. She used the highest platform particularly well in conveying the dominance of one person over another in their character relationships, such as when the new prioress looms over her charges. I also liked her decision to have the sisters pass a candle down the line at the end as they went off one by one to a literal coup de theatre. There was wonderful attention to detail like this throughout.

Two stretched, distended trapezoidal screens hung menacingly over the proceedings, managing to suggest the strife in the story, and also proving useful for Helga Watkins’ well-executed projections. That said, I wondered why only the stage left screen was favored with projected images. The set pieces were functional and their movement was well choreographed, but they were far less atmospheric than the overall design. I had the feeling that many may have been what “was available” in the prop storage room, rather than selectively chosen for a unique, futuristic look.

Conversely, Brian Hollander’s fanciful costumes, and the un-credited make-up and wigs were wholly successful in conveying an ominous, yet-to-be-known impending culture of dominance and corruption. The stately nuns habits swathed the ladies in earth-toned silhouettes of simple, stylized beauty, while the Marquis and Chevalier provide a riot of color, attired as they are in a fanciful collision of period French court wear and Steampunk sensibilities. As Act I progresses, and there are long stretches when the nuns’ uniform dress comes to seem more “here and now,” the dystopian conceit does visually flag a bit. But when the authoritarian men’s chorus eventually bursts onto the scene as sci-fi inspired storm troopers, we were immediately drawn back into an apocalyptic mindset.

Brittney Price has crafted a deft and moody lighting design that ably defines areas with a good balance of color and intensity. Her isolated specials were well considered and helped to underscore the emotional beats of Poulenc’s writing. This was especially powerful during the suffering and death of the Old Prioress, with harsh effects punctuating her pair.

The quality of the singing was exceptionally high. In the central role, Casey Dakus was a convincing presence, her lustrous, sizable soprano deployed in complete bidding to the rangy music of the complex, conflicted Blanche. Ms. Dakus’ attractive instrument, sound technique, dramatic investment, and superior musicianship promise much for future success.

Kimberly Gratland James almost runs away with the showy for her towering portrayal as the Old Prioress. Ms. James sang with stolid, richly imperious tone in her first scene, then brought the house down with her extended anguished death scene. Her mezzo-soprano has a mature, imposing luster that is even throughout the range. When the music demands it, she can pin your ears back with cascades of searing phrases, but she can also tug your heart with limpid pronouncements of hushed introspection. This was a memorable interpretation equaling my memories of Regine Crespin and Christine Brewer.

Sister Constance was charmingly embodied by Tiffaney-Anne Calabro. Her promising light soprano was a good match for the chirping, sunny music assigned to her, and her stage demeanor was a perfect fit for the naïve, hopeful character. Rabuel Aviles lavished the role of Mother Marie with richly rounded singing above the staff, and her committed portrayal was consistently engaging. Ms. Aviles loses some point and focus as the range descends, but she never pushes for effect.

Karin Hochman found an ideal match for her talents with the role of the New Prioress. Ms. Hochman’s ample, poised soprano floated through the house with ease. Her elegant bearing and vibrant phrasing conveyed a regal confidence, and an assuring assumption of command. The moments when she soared with abandon above the women’s chorus were among the highpoints of a very rich evening.

Aaron Pendleton put his imposing bass-baritone and physical stature to good use as the Marquis de la Force, his well judged, weighted singing suggesting a father that is far beyond his own age. Perry Chacon Jr. provided a securely sung Chevalier, his attractive tenor falling so easily on the ear, I wished Poulenc had given him more to sing. Alex Price acted with fretting conviction as the Chaplain, and his pure tenor was well suited to the role’s needs.

In cameo roles, tenor Ranon Pador successfully intoned the proclamations of the First Commissioner; Kurt Sedlmeir’s reliable baritone did triple duty as Second Commissioner, Jailer, and Officer; Chase Gutierrez showed off a pleasant baritone in the brief appearance as the valet, Thierry; baritone Andrew Williams was fine as a very young Doctor Javelinot; and mezzo Kate Meyer made the most of her lines as Mother Jeanne.

In the pit (actually upstage), Taras Krysa conducted with assurance, drawing stylish playing from the large student orchestra. This is a very challenging score, full of unusual harmonies, exposed solos, layered effects, and rhythmic shifts that challenge even the most experienced bands. That Maestro Krysa has in large measure succeeded in conveying the richness of the writing is to his great credit. However, the ensemble string intonation occasionally veered from the page, and the lower brass, especially the horns came to grief more than once in the difficult exposed writing. Still, the ensemble with the singers was commendable, and the overall effect was quite a pleasure to encounter.

I am not sure that Las Vegas knows what a treasure it has in this ambitious opera program, one that has delivered many innovative productions over my tenure in the city. If there was one thing wrong in the evening, it was that the performance was not even nearly sold out. Many another town might clamor to see a production of such imagination and quality.

At the end of the day, those in attendance knew that they had experienced a moving, intriguing performance of Poulenc’s knotty masterpiece and rewarded cast and creative team with a well-deserved, vociferous ovation.

Dialogues of the Carmelites

Blanche de la Force: Casey Dakus; Marquis de la Force: Aaron Pendleton; Chevalier de la Force: Perry Chacon Jr.; Madame de Croissy (Old Prioress): Kimberly Gratland James; Sister Constance of St. Denis: Tiffaney-Anne Calabro; Mother Marie of the Incarnation: Rabuel Aviles; Madame Lidoine (New Prioress): Karin Hochman; Mother Jeanne: Kate Meyer; Chaplain: Alex Price; First Commissioner: Ranon Pador; Second Commissioner/Jailer/Office: Kurt Sedlmeir; Thierry: Chase Gutierrez; Javelinot: Andrew Williams; Conductor: Tara Krysa; Director: Linda Lister; Set Design: Michael Genova; Lighting Design: Brittney Price; Costume Design: Brian Hollander; Projection Design: Helga Watkins


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