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SCRUTINY | The Glenn Gould School Spring Opera Presents A Superb Dialogues Des Carmélites

By Joseph So on March 22, 2024

Foreground, Left to Right: Jessica Lyublinsky, Charlotte Anderson, Emma MacNeil, Daniela Carreón Herrera (obstructed), Elena Howard-Scott (Rebanks), Adriana Da, Emma Pennell, Olivia Morton, Lauren Smith, Marie Conceição, Stella HealdBackground: Alexa Frankian (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
Foreground, Left to Right: Jessica Lyublinsky, Charlotte Anderson, Emma MacNeil, Daniela Carreón Herrera (obstructed), Elena Howard-Scott (Rebanks), Adriana Da, Emma Pennell, Olivia Morton, Lauren Smith, Marie Conceição, Stella Heald; Background: Alexa Frankian (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

(In order of appearance) Chevalier de la Force: Yanik Gosselin; Marquis de la Force: Colin Mackey; Blanche de la Force: Elena Howard-Scott; Thierry & 1st Commissioner: Nicholas Kluftinger; Old Prioress: Jennifer Routhier; Sister Constance: Emma MacNeil; Mother Marie: Emma Pennell; Javelinot, 2nd Commissioner & 1st Officer: Simon Gidora; Madame Lidoine: Alexa Frankian; Carmelite Nuns: Olivia Morton, Julia Kennific, Daniela Carreón Herrera, Stella Christine, Marie Conceição; Adriana Da & Lauren Smith; Chaplain: Jeffrey Liu; Sister Mathilde: Charlotte Anderson; Mother Jeanne: Jessica Lyublinsky; Jailer: Jamal Al Titi. Stephen Carr, director; Shannon Lea Doyle, set/costume designer; Jason Hand, lighting designer; Royal Conservatory Orchestra, Nicolas Ellis, conductor. Koerner Hall, March 20, 2024. Repeats March 22, 2024; tickets here

The Glenn Gould School is the professional arm of the Royal Conservatory of Music, the internationally recognized centre for professional training in music performance at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Founded in 1987 as the Royal Conservatory of Music Professional School, it was renamed in 1997 to the Glenn Gould School to honour the great Canadian pianist.

The GGS Opera serves as an important training ground for artists of tomorrow, with many of its graduates going on to significant careers. I have wonderful memories of attending many of their productions over the years. Smaller-scale works take place in the intimate Mazzoleni Hall while the bigger shows are at Koerner Hall. Just last season, I enjoyed enormously Jonathan Dove’s Flight at Koerner, and a collection of four short operas at the Mazzoleni Hall.

The presentation this spring is the mid-20th century masterpiece, Dialogues des Carmélites (1957) by Francis Poulenc. I saw it for the first time at the Met, way back in 1977, sung in English, and it has since become a “desert island opera” for me. A spiritually profound work, the final scene invariably gives me a lump in my throat. It is based on the true story of the Martyrs of Compiègne, a community of Carmelite nuns who were guillotined during the French Revolution.

The French Revolution serves as the backdrop for the haunting story of Blanche de la Force, a timid young aristocrat who fears the violence surrounding her. She seeks refuge by joining the Carmelite order, only to find that she cannot escape her inevitable fate. The GGS has put together a superb creative team and a very strong ensemble cast, made up mostly of current students and the advanced students, the Rebanks Fellows.

Left to Right: Emma Pennell (Soprano, ADP - Year 1), Jennifer Routhier (Alumna Ringer) & Elena Howard-Scott (Rebanks Fellow) (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
Left to Right: Emma Pennell (Soprano, ADP – Year 1), Jennifer Routhier (Alumna Ringer) & Elena Howard-Scott (Rebanks Fellow) (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

For the role of Madame de Croissy, the Old Prioress, it requires a powerful, mature low mezzo, even a contralto, a voice type very rare among young conservatory students. A GGS Alumna, mezzo Jennifer Routhier stepped in to fill the void admirably — her death scene was absolutely gripping. As Blanche, Rebanks Fellow soprano Elena Howard-Scott sang very well, with a particularly powerful top register. Her scenes with the Marquis (Colin Mackey) and later with the Chevalier (Yanik Gosselin) were beautifully executed.

Another pivotal personage in this opera is Madame Lidoine, the New Prioress, here taken by budding spinto soprano Alexa Frankian. Lidoine arguably has the most beautiful music to sing, her last act aria, “Mes filles, voilà que s’achève” an absolute highlight. Frankian has the vocal chops to do it justice. As Sister Constance, soprano Emma MacNeil has the requisite purity of tone and innocence to make this character come alive.

Mother Marie is often considered a bit of a thankless role in Dialogues, a villainess, someone who incite the nuns to martyrdom while she herself escapes the guillotine. I was struck by the powerful vocal and dramatic performance of Mother Marie by soprano Emma Pennell, in a role usually assigned to a mezzo. I noticed that interestingly, at the final curtain, Madame Lidoine and Mother Marie’s bow orders were reversed, something I had never seen before.

Elena Howard-Scott (Rebanks Fellow) & Jennifer Routhier (Alumna Ringer) (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
Elena Howard-Scott (Rebanks Fellow) & Jennifer Routhier (Alumna Ringer) (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

While the men folk in Dialogues take a back seat, in this production, the male voices were just as strongly cast, from the aristocrats (Mackey and Gosselin) to the Chaplain (Jeffrey Liu) to Javelinot (Simon Gidora) to the Jailer (Jamal Al Titi). Also totally deserving of praise is the superb choral singing, so important in this opera, be they the nuns or the peasants.

Even though Koerner Hall isn’t really an opera stage, the creative team has done a great job to make it work in this space. Set designer Shannon Lea Doyle kept it simple, basic, yet effective. Kudos to Stephen Carr, the stage director, for his ingenious directorial touches, from the excellent blocking to the smallest details, all enhanced by the very effective lighting design of Jason Hand.

Finally, a shoutout to the Royal Conservatory Orchestra for their brilliant playing under the knowing baton of Nicolas Ellis. He led the forces in a briskly paced, highly dramatic, very exciting, yet never over-the-top performance. I was extremely impressed by the marvellous sounds coming from the pit.

All in all, a truly memorable evening at the opera. There’s one more performance on March 22. Not to be missed.

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Joseph So
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