The Royal Opera – Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites [Sally Matthews as Blanche & Anna Prohaska as Constance; directed by Robert Carsen; conducted by Simon Rattle]

Dialogues des Carmélites – An opera in three Acts to a text of the drama by Georges Bernanos adapted with the authorisation of Emmet Lavery [sung in French with English surtitles]

Blanche – Sally Matthews
Constance – Anna Prohaska
Madame Lidoine – Emma Bell
Mère Marie – Sophie Koch
Madame de Croissy – Deborah Polaski
Marquis de la Force – Sir Thomas Allen
Chevalier de la Force – Yann Beuron / Luis Gomes
Mother Jeanne – Elizabeth Sikora
Sister Mathilde – Catherine Carby
Father Confessor – Alan Oke
First Commissary – David Butt Philip
Second Commissary – Michel de Souza
First Officer – Ashley Riches
Gaoler – Craig Smith
Javelinot – John Bernays
Thierry – Neil Gillespie

Royal Opera Chorus

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Simon Rattle

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

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 29 May, 2014
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Dialogues des Carmélites, The Royal Opera, May 2014. Photograph: Robert CummiskeyPoulenc’s harrowing opera Dialogues des Carmélites is not frequently performed in Britain – perhaps we cannot stomach the notion of revolution with anything like the same forbearance as the nuns concerned – but Covent Garden has a closer connection with it than any other British house, receiving its English premiere there in 1958, and revived in 1959, 1963 and 1983.

This production by Robert Carsen is all the more unsettling for largely doing without any sets. Understatement and suggestion make dramatic points more effectively than something more excessive might have done. For instance, the revolutionary crowd is already present in the first tableau whilst the Marquis and the Chevalier discuss Blanche, pressing in on their aristocratic world, but not yet enacting any violence – it is the horde’s mere potential for this, and their mainly dark costumes which are more threatening. And when Blanche first presents herself to the Carmelite priory, the nuns kneeling at prayer dotted regularly around the stage seem to suggest orderliness which could assuage her fear of the outside world; but they also appear like static Flowermaidens from Parsifal, silently luring Blanche into their community with no more security than before, since their death-wish drives them inexorably towards martyrdom at the hands of the revolutionaries.

Dialogues des Carmélites, The Royal Opera, May 2014. Photograph: Robert CummiskeyPoulenc cited Debussy as one of his influences in this work, and not only are the inflections of Poulenc’s word-setting as sympathetic as in the earlier composer’s Pelléas et Mélisande, but the dynamic range of musical expression is kept similarly within modest dimensions for the most part. Sir Simon Rattle certainly took this into account, directing the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in its performance to match the spare visual action, allowing moments of heightened drama to come forth more urgently, most of all the strokes of the guillotine, produced by off-stage sound effects rather than physically enacted. The nuns responded by slowly sinking down, in turn, resigned to their fate. It would be tempting to think that the refusal to stage the nuns’ execution explicitly cheated the audience of a natural expectation for dramatic action (whether cathartic or prurient) but that decision is consistent with the subtle manner of the staging generally, focusing on the psychological and spiritual aspects of the narrative. All along, the Orchestra had prepared for the devastating climax with its forbidding, terse performance of the faster sections of the music. Only in the slower passages could there have been more refinement, and at times more mysticism, particularly in relation to the nuns’ music.

Sally Matthews as Blanche headed a fine cast, successfully bringing together the character’s complicated mixture of fear, humility and determination. Anna Prohaska’s Sister Constance was very much her foil, conveying the necessarily contrasting levity in this role, not as anything trite or trivial but as the comic counterpart to a tragic attitude to the seriousness of life.

Dialogues des Carmélites, The Royal Opera, May 2014. Photograph: Robert CummiskeyAmong the other sisters, Deborah Polaski sang the dying Prioress, Madame de Croissy, with suitable feverishness, whilst Sophie Koch and Emma Bell were respectively commanding as Mother Marie and Madame Lidoine. They also evinced nobility as they called for a vow of martyrdom, and led the nuns in prayer in prison.

Thomas Allen faced the growing danger to his family and himself with calm and restraint in his brief appearance as the Marquis. Both Yann Beuron as his son, the Chevalier, and Alan Oke as the Father Confessor sang with throat infections – vocally they may have had less presence as a result, but musically there was little detriment. However, Beuron was replaced by Luis Gomes in Act Two, who had a fuller and lyrically romantic Italianate voice, which was arguably at odds with the music, but in the tableau where he berates Blanche (his sibling), this seemed appropriate. Overall then, in its quiet, crepuscular way, this is a grimly compelling production.

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