Western classical music, and particularly opera, has only sparsely infiltrated the Middle East, but there are definite signs that this may be changing. The most luxurious hotel in the cash-flushed United Arab Emirate of Abu Dhabi hosts monthly concerts by leading European performing companies, including, last October, the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, rarely heard outside the Festspielhaus. Lebanon, renowned in the region for its sophistication, offers an annual classical music festival hosted by the Hotel al-Bustan, a hilltop complex with commanding views named for a prominent Lebanese political family whose members still operate both the property and the event. For nearly twenty years, one of the Bustan Festival’s highlights has been the visit of Moscow’s Helikon Opera, an intrepid company known for cutting edge productions.
Helikon’s visit to Beirut this year offered a work with credentials as cosmopolitan as the festival itself: Francis Poulenc’s 1957 opera premiered at La Scala in Italian, after all. Sung in French in the Middle East by an all Russian cast with French and English subtitles projected on different screens, the atmosphere was rife with globalization. It was a pity, then, that the Bustan’s auditorium had so many empty seats. The Helikon singers delivered a rousing performance of an opera I always found too introspective, too devoid of action, and too philosophical to reveal the art form at its best.
The work, based on a screenplay by Georges Bernanos, is ultimately about one character: Blanche de la Force, daughter of a marquis, who is unable to confront the agony of daily life and seeks refuge in a Carmelite convent. In ordinary times she might have lived out a life of devotion and contemplation, but the events of the French Revolution test her faith. When the Order resolves to defy the new regime’s laws, continue on as a religious community, and accept martyrdom, Blanche flees to her home, only to find that revolutionary chaos has destroyed her family and abased her position. Only when her unfortunate sisters are led to the guillotine does she rejoin their ranks to share their fate and find truth to herself.
Ekaterina Trebeleva conquered Blanche’s music with great power but also with the great sensitivity it needs to develop into a psychological portrait. In the role of Madame de Croissy, the prioress who receives Blanche into the Carmelite community and serves as her foil throughout the work, Kseniya Vyaznikova contributed a fine contralto with purring lower tones. Her most dramatic scene, a deathbed fit in which she believes herself abandoned by God despite her lifetime of service, was a highlight of the evening’s intensity. The supporting cast of nuns sang in excellent harmony. Igor Tarasov, who sang the marquis, and Dmitry Khromov, Blanche’s brother, the chevalier de la Force, added steady male voices to an opera in which they are frequently overlooked.
The Bustan auditorium placed constraints on what Helikon could do with the work. I have not seen the production in Moscow, but it seemed scaled down for the small stage and low proscenium arch. The entire action takes places before an unattractive brown stucco wall with a diagonal crucifix shape cut out, the angle vaguely suggesting Jesus’s bearing of the cross. The cut out only finds its use, though, when the nuns proceed through it during the famous last scene, when they are killed. The effect was made ridiculous by the unnecessary adding of a pantomime of revolutionary soldiers rolling bowling balls across the stage in time with the falling blade. Perhaps someone took the metaphor “heads will roll” too lightly. The absence of an orchestra pit placed the instrumentalists just before the stage with only a slight elevation separating them from the action. This made it hard to appreciate the voices as fully as one would in an opera house, and Poulenc’s rich harmonics suffered a bit from the direct exposure. Under Konstantin Chudovsky the orchestra’s playing was adequate but hardly more.