Prom 31: Glyndebourne – Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites

Dialogues des Carmélites – opera in three Acts to a libretto by the composer based on the play by George Bernanos [sung in French with English surtitles]

Blanche de la Force – Sally Matthews
Madame de Croissy (Old Prioress) – Katarina Dalayman
Madame Lidoine (New Prioress) – Golda Schultz
Mother Marie of the Incarnation – Karen Cargill
Sister Constance of St Denis – Florie Valiquette
Mother Jeanne of the Child Jesus – Fiona Kimm
Marquis de la Force – Paul Gay
Chevalier de la Force – Valentin Thill
Father Confessor – Vincent Ordonneau
Jailer – Theodore Platt
First Commissary – Gavan Ring
Second Commissary – Michael Ronan
Thierry (a footman) – Jamie Woollard
Javelinot (a physician) – Matthew Nuttall

Glyndebourne Chorus

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Robin Ticciati

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 7 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Possibly in the pursuit of accessibility, the BBC thought it necessary to translate the French title, Dialogues des Carmélites, of Poulenc’s opera into Dialogues of the Carmelites, just to make things clear. This was the Glyndebourne opera that was disrupted by a Just Stop Oil protest earlier this summer, a touching gesture given the company’s green credentials. But as in the French Revolution, during which sixteen Carmelite nuns were sent to the guillotine and martyrdom, there too in Sussex mob rule and ignorance held sway.

This semi-staging (devised by Donna Stirrup from Barrie Kosky’s much-praised production) moved things from a spare, abstract setting to the Albert Hall’s Victorian opulence. The opera’s twelve short scenes were ventilated by silences as telling as Poulenc’s music, the nuns’ stripped of their black habits before execution, a distressing sight, and the direction of the nuns as a collective left ample room for individual roles to make their mark. It may have been described as a semi-staging, but I doubt the audience felt remotely short-changed, such was the performance’s intensity, simplicity and unsparing focus.

Robin Ticciati, Glyndebourne’s Music Director, conducted, and if ever there was a case of a servant of the music being its master, it was here as he presided over a searing account of the score’s boundless psychological insights with faultless accuracy. Poulenc was riven with doubt about his Catholicism, and he was no stranger to the struggles for the honesty, self-sacrifice, passion and chaste sensuality that faith feeds on. Ticciati and the London Philharmonic Orchestra let the music do its work with affecting directness, a compulsive outpouring of elemental lyricism. And in the light of current discussion about Prommers’ applause, conductors might well try Ticciati’s effortless ease at maintaining silence when it matters.

Sally Matthews was outstanding as Sister Blanche, the aristocratic girl who enters the convent as the revolution gathers force. Matthews conveyed Blanche’s conflict between neurosis and a desire for selflessness in an unforgettable performance, made even sharper by the unaffected, sweet simplicity of Florie Valiquette’s finely observed and sung Sister Constance. Katarina Dalayman was deeply disturbing as Madame de Croissy, the old prioress who feels deserted by her faith as she dies. Golda Schultz was in magnificent voice as Madame Lidoine, the order’s uncompromising new prioress who reminds her sisters that while prayer is a duty, martyrdom is a gift from God. Karen Cargill played Mother Marie with a pragmatic warmth and generosity – in the real-life events, Marie was the only one of the group to escape the guillotine. She later wrote a memoir that provided the material for the play on which Poulenc based his opera. As Blanche’s father and brother, the Marquis and Chevalier de la Force, Paul Gay and Valentin Thill expressed the reality and mounting dread of the Terror, while Gavan Ring and Theodore Platt (First Commissary and Jailer) conveyed the blind self-righteousness of France’s new masters. Ticciati took the famous last scene, where the nuns sing the Salve Regina as they go to their glory, quite briskly, as if to spare them any more suffering. Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is one of opera’s great one-offs – which is saying something in a crowded field – and Glyndebourne and the Proms did it proud.

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