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June 25, 2014

'Dialogues of the Carmelites' showcases Christine Brewer, fine cast

Lebanon's own Christine Brewer makes a triumphant return to the stage where she first honed her performing skills in the moving "Dialogues of the Carmelites."

The Opera Theatre of St. Louis had not staged Francis Poulenc's 1957 historical piece until now, its fourth and final offering of its innovative 39th season.

Based on the true story about a convent of nuns martyred at the guillotine in 1794 during the French Revolution, the opera features stirring melodrama and impassioned singing.

Brewer's role is pivotal but not the main focus, as Madame Lidoine, the new prioress. When she finally appears and engages in song, her impact is undeniable. It is a special moment. No wonder she was named one of the top 20 sopranos of the 20th century.

Brewer, who made her debut in 1982, last performed at OTSL five years ago. On Friday, she was welcomed back with vigorous applause from the second evening's audience. Her glorious soprano, as did the rest of the dynamic leads, vaulted the production to another level.

This tragic tale is filled with memorable characters. Kelly Kaduce, whose extraordinary "Salome" a few years ago is still talked about, vocally soars as Blanche. A gifted actress, she was effective conveying Blanche's anxieties and fears about living.

The ideals of Catholic theology are emphasized once Blanche enters the convent, through the nuns she meets, notably grace, prayer and sacrifice. The growth of her spirituality is reflected in the prose.

Meredith Arwady was an impressive Madame de Croissy, the prioress, showcasing her robust, rich voice, Her gruesome death scene was particularly gut-wrenching.

Diminutive Ashley Emerson delighted the crowd as the young virtuous Sister Constance, whose personality and spirit were magnetic. In her OTSL debut, Daveda Karanas sang Mother Marie with admirable skill.

The men distinguished themselves, too, with Troy Cook as Blanche's father, the Marquis de la Force, and Michael Porter, as her brother, the Chevalier, strong. Kyle Erdos-Knapp, while looking like a too young hippy friar, displayed such a pure, clear tone as the priest.

An austere "box," Andrew Lieberman's set ultimately became too confining and limited. However, the backdrop's plain white walls became a bold statement when each woman left her signature. The lighting by James F. Ingalls enhanced the danger and the harrowing outcome.

Director Robin Guarino went with a minimalist approach to allow the intense emotions to resonate, which worked for most of three hours, but a few plot points became muddled -- particularly when all the nuns are pretty much wearing the same costume.

The prose can become dense -- "Dialogues," after all, is in the title -- but the performers were adept at keeping things moving, and briskly enunciating the English translation.

Conductor Ward Stare capably handled the music's rhythms effectively, finessing the rising emotions with great precision.

Other metro-east residents involved in the production included Granite City native Erie Mills, who was the English diction specialist, and Jamie Eros, Debby Lennon and Sarah Price as choristers.

Few moments in art are as potent as the sound of the guillotine and the 16 nuns, one by one, meeting their fate with obvious courage. A palpable hush fell over the crowd for a significant period.

And then the audience roared in appreciation for the exceptional voices on display -- with Swiss watch timing, the cast's expressive emoting was of the highest caliber.

What: "Dialogues of the Carmelites"

Who: Opera Theatre of St. Louis

When: tonight and Saturday

Where: Loretto-Hilton Center at Webster University, 130 Edgar Road, St. Louis

Tickets: 314-961-0644

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