Francis Poulenc’s 1957 opera Dialogues des Carmélites has the virtues of necessity. Director Robert Carsten’s production puts these virtues before us in simple black and white. The virtues begin with the story: Blanche, an aristocrat afraid of the French Revolution who hopes to find refuge in a nunnery, becomes a refugee of religious persecution, and chooses to die a martyr with her sisters. The story is told with a minimum of props and no end of imaginative staging, lighting and costumes. Poulenc’s music, impeccably rendered by Johannes Debus and his Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, is tonal but edged with chromatic dissonances, richly orchestrated, lyrical and narrative in an accessible way irridescent with the popular styles of musical theatre on Broadway, the West End, the Deuxième Arrondissement, and the cabarets of Berlin. The singers are all vivid, especially the female constellation of great magnitude: artists whose stage presence is equal to their song. Finally, the popular mob, a chorus of nearly 100, is managed almost magically to create a flow of scene changes that is seamless and wonderfully in sync with the lighting and the music. Carsten’s production exudes pleasure at every point, which is strange for a story that is steeped in a terror that necessitates the serial execution of sixteen nuns.

I must confess at least one degree of separation from the habits of cloistered Catholic nuns and their preoccupations with institutional obedience and salvation by faith, pressed to the point of sharing a mass martyrdom. On the other hand, nothing could be closer to the bone than Judith Forst’s portrayal of the terminal agonies of the First Prioress: her torment drives her out of bed, where she staggers and blasphemes, singing in a voice that makes real the hell-on-earth of her illness, and then she dies, unshriven. Adrianne Pieczonka, as the Second Prioress, is undeniably luminous, vocally and dramatically, as she restores majesty to her office of mother to her daughters. The sheer force of her performance overwhelms any issue about her beliefs.

Isabel Bayrakdarian brings a quivering sensitivity to the lead role of Blanche de la Force that reflects the growth of her character from fragile innocence, to succsessive rebellions against the wishes of her family and her sisterhood, to a shining maturity. Blanche’s companion and counterfoil is the quirky, clairvoyant Sister Constance, played with beguiling charm by Hélène Guilmette. The complex role of Mother Marie, who proposes the martyrdom but does not get to share the glory of it, is strongly performed by mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura. In the midst of this plethora of female voices it was an undeniable pleasure to hear the tenors and baritones of the father (Jean-François Lapointe), brother (Frédéric Antoun), chaplain (Michael Colvin), officers (Christopher Enns, Evan Boyer, Cameron McPhail) and jailer (Peter Barrett).

In the end, as in the beginning, this opera is the music of Francis Poulenc, the rich flow of his feelings of love for the world and his eccentric individuality. The colours of Poulenc’s individuality come out vividly in his orchestration of winds, especially oboes and bassoon, solo voices that he uses to signal shifts of scene. Like Prokofiev, his bridge partner, whose music he admired (and to whose memory he dedicated his Oboe Sonata), Poulenc had a special talent for marches. His “Death March” in Dialogues is an ominous answer to Ravel’s Boléro, and the concluding percussive claps that signify the descent of the chopping-blade are moments of memorable theatrical shock.

This opera meant a lot to Poulenc, partly as an expression of his born-again Catholic Orthodoxy after a splendidly dissolute youth, and more poignantly because the agonies of the First Prioress mirror the agony of his companion Lucien Roubert who suffered and died from cancer while Poulenc was composing this opera. The subtlety and depth of Poulenc’s music are equally mirrored by the vocal performances, the brilliant play of light and shadow (Jean Kalman and Cor van den Brink), the Falk Bauer costumes and Phillipe Giraudeau’s choreography of their play across the minimal fluidity of Michael Levin’s set. And, being as this coming weekend is Mother’s Day, I can’t help echoing Madame Lidoine’s tribute for the late Prioress, that “at this time, we need her advice”.