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A Magnificent Martyrdom

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on June 4, 2014 at 2:27 pm

Review – Dialogues des Carmélites (Royal Opera House, Thursday 29 May 2014)

Blanche de la Force – Sally Matthews
Sister Constance of St Denis – Anna Prohaska
Mother Marie of the Incarnation – Sophie Koch
Madame Lidoine – Emma Bell
Madame de Croissy – Deborah Polaski
Sister Mathilde – Catherine Carnby
Mother Jeanne of the Child Jesus – Elizabeth Sikora
Father Confessor – Alan Oke
Chevalier de la Force – Yann Beuron and Luis Gomes
Marquis de la Force – Thomas Allen
Monsieur Javelinot – John Bernays
First Commissary – David Butt Philip
Second Commissary – Michel de Souza
Thierry – Neil Gillespie
Officer – Ashley Roches
Gaoler – Craig Smith

The Carmelite Nuns – Yvonne Barclay, Katy Batho, Tamsin Coombs,
Eileen Hamilton, Anne Osborne, Deborah Peake Jones, Louise Armit, Andrea Hazell, Elizabeth Key, Kate McCarney & Deborah Pearce.

Royal Opera House Chorus
Royal Opera House Community Ensemble
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Director – Robert Carsen
Set Designs – Michael Levine
Costume Designs – Falk Bauer
Lighting Design – Jean Kalman
Movement – Philippe Giraudeau

Simon Rattle (Conductor)

Never has a martyrdom been so beautiful, heartrending and – in fact – ecstatic as Robert Carsen’s production of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites.

A production previously seen in Holland and Vienna, it has finally arrived at Covent Garden and hopefully it will become a regular revival.

I admit that it takes a while for my ear to get accustomed to Poulenc, but Covent Garden has assembled a cast that has done justice to Poulenc’s music and Carsen beautifully balances the brutality of the closing moments with moments of simplicity, grace, devotion and, indeed love.

Personally I don’t think that there is a leading role. Almost as if Poulenc himself was reflecting the humility of the Carmelite religious order, each of the main characters has equal musical and emotional importance.

And while the diction – and let’s face it French isn’t the easiest of languages to sing in – wasn’t always perfect, each and every performance was unremittingly committed.

But for me it was Emma Bell’s Madame Lidoine who portrayed the greatest depth of musical intelligence and human emotion. Vocally she was outstanding, eloquently shaping Poulenc’s often-unusual vocal lines without any hint of strain at either ends of her range. And her command of the stage – even when stripped of her habit – was absolute.

The remaining principle characters were just as strong in their musicianship and portrayal. Sophie Koch’s steely tone perfectly matched the religious militancy of Mother Marie of the Incarnation and offered a welcome contrast vocally not only to the warmth of Emma Bell, but also with Anna Prohaska’s Sister Constance of St Denis. In her debut she found the right balance between her character’s sense of youthful exuberance and naive devotion and vocally her bright voice shone over the composer’s delicate orchestral palette.

Similarly, Sally Matthews shone as Blanche. Vocally there was some tightness at the top of her range but this did not detract from a performance of total commitment and passion. It was devastating to see her reduced in her own home, so skillfully acted by the soprano, before the final scene.

And how amazing was Deborah Polaski? This was a Madame de Croissy of both deep conviction and disappointment in God. As with her performance as The Nurse recently in Munich, she exuded musical confidence and experience as she coloured her vocal line with authority, combined with acting that invested her character with dignity til her last breath.

Yann Beuron bravely performed the First Act as the Chevalier de la Force and even though he was clearly vocally indisposed his performance was again both musically intelligent and well shaped. But plaudits must go to Luis Gomes for stepping in for the Second Act. His voice showed vocal promise and he seemed comfortably enough in Poulenc’s idiosyncratic music.

And when I talked of love earlier on, I was suddenly struck on the first night by the fact that this crucial meeting between the Chevalier and Blanche was nothing if it was not a love duet – albeit between siblings – but nonetheless about love.

Of the remaining men, both Thomas Allen and Alan Oke – again slightly indisposed on the first night – gave forthright and confident performances and the ensemble of Nuns gave excellent support to the main characters.

From the podium, Rattle drew some superlative playing from the orchestra and singing from the chorus. As I said, I find it takes my ear time to get accustomed to Poulenc’s music. The opening Act might have taken a while to settle down, but by the Second Act and beyond where clearly Poulenc’s music becomes richer and more supple, Rattle coaxed from the orchestra that delicate, vibrant ‘French’ sound world, reveling in the details of the score, but never losing momentum.

And complementing Poulenc’s music and the strong performances on stage was Carsen’s vision.

And as ever with this director, it was a finely nuanced production where the devil was in the beautifully observed and often stark detail.

The overall austerity of the set heightened the focus on dramatic details too numerous to go into here. But the opening of the Second Act where Madame Croissy’s body was made up of flowers; the ‘human cloister’ created by the Nuns in the Second Act or the menacing use of the crowds to create either virtual walls or a tsunami of across the stage to so effectively change the set demonstrated how thoughtfully Carsen had approached this production.

But if there was one scene above all else that captured the essence of this opera – its humanity, its austerity and its sense of oppression – it was when Madame Lidoine spoke to her sisters before the end. No walls, no distractions, simply a single shaft of light that so effectively created the sense of the Nuns, cramped in a cell, and stoically facing their unavoidable fate.

Indeed, Jean Kalman’s lighting designs were critical to the success of this production. Throughout he masterfully conjured up both a sense of incredible space – during the service in the convent for example – or that sense of suffocation.

But above all, it was the humanity of the characters themselves that made this production stand out. There was an authenticity to the Nuns’ own gestures and movements that showed how carefully Carsen had approached Carmélites and – I think – what impact the opera had on him personally.

At this point I would like to congratulate the Royal Opera for finding such a brilliant solution to that difficult conundrum – finding a way to integrate outreach work with productions. Initiatives are often impactful yet small scale, but with the Community Ensemble they found a way to make an incredible and valuable impact.

I hope it is something they don’t lose sight of.

Of course it is the ending of the opera that is most famous. In previous productions, directors have had the nuns walk off stage to their deaths. But here Carsen not only reinforced the brutality but also heightened the spirituality of their demise. As they walked towards their deaths, it wasn’t only the singing that underlined their faith, but the way that Carsen integrated the mystical, almost sensuous dance movements that some Carmelite orders were known for.

This production of Dialogues des Carmélites was a rare thing – a marriage of the highest standards of musical performance with a production that drew the finest portrait of a human tragedy.

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