June 23, 2014 5:20 pm

Dialogues of the Carmelites/The Elixir of Love, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Missouri – review

An austere Poulenc production, and a finely sung account of Donizetti’s comedy
From left, René Barbera, Tim Mix and Susannah Biller in 'The Elixir of Love'©Ken Howard

From left, René Barbera, Tim Mix and Susannah Biller in 'The Elixir of Love'

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis thrives on lean rather than lavish productions, but some can be a bit too lean. Andrew Lieberman’s single set for Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, directed by Robin Guarino, consists of a rectangular wooden structure resembling a waiting room. Its interior apparently supplies refuge from French revolutionary turmoil, but when Sister Blanche toils in her family’s chateau as a servant, only a wooden spoon and a pan suggest what she’s doing. For the grim finale, each of the 16 nuns condemned for their faith takes a seat, anticlimactically, in the structure after the guillotine (heard but not seen) falls on her.

As the Old Prioress, who dies earlier of agonising natural causes, Meredith Arwady is simply overwhelming. Kelly Kaduce projects Blanche’s emotional fragility, but her singing can be strong, even hard-edged. Daveda Karanas brings resonant vocal authority to Mother Marie, and sweet-voiced Ashley Emerson couldn’t be better as the irrepressible Sister Constance. The redoubtable Christine Brewer, as the New Prioress, is moving in reassuring her flock, but high notes are distressingly strident. It would have been good to cram more strings (from the Saint Louis Symphony) into OTSLs small pit, but Ward Stare leads an engrossing, nuanced performance.



The Elixir of Love
as directed by Jose Maria Condemi, with sets and costumes by Allen Moyer and Martin Pakledina, affirms the universality of Donizetti’s life-affirming comedy by setting it in rural America just before the first world war. With Nemorino an ice-cream pedlar, the stage is full of things such as his vintage dairy truck and a motorcycle, with sidecar, for the quack Dr Dulcamara’s arrival, all in surroundings picturesquely redolent of Thomas Hart Benton. Condemi introduces several mischievous comic touches, but it was a downer at the end when Sgt Belcore found a newspaper proclaiming “War”.

René Barbera, a charming Nemorino, makes a strong bid for inclusion in the current bumper crop of bel canto tenors with a disarmingly simple yet dynamically subtle account of his big aria. Susannah Biller is a fetching, clear-voiced Adina, and Patrick Carfizzi is a Dulcamara more conniving than grandiose. The conductor Stephen Lord respects both the score’s zesty and its melancholy moods. Kelley Rourke’s English translation takes a distressingly expansive view of what constitutes a rhyme but has some apt Americanisms: Dulcamara’s elixir is not Bordeaux but 80-proof.


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