Dialogues des Carmélites

Searingly Simple Version of Unconventional Opera

June 3, 2014By Nick HammondMusic

Sally Matthews as Blanche de la Force. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey
Sally Matthews as Blanche de la Force. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

Anyone who wants to hear great French opera this summer might consider going to London rather than Paris to catch Robert Carsen’s wonderful production (first staged in Amsterdam) of Francis Poulenc’s extraordinary opera, Dialogues des Carmélites, currently playing at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

With British conductor Simon Rattle, chief conductor and artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic, directing the ROH orchestra with his customary verve and insight, and with an excellent cast, the musical and dramatic experience is of the highest quality.

Inspired by the real-life martyrdom of Carmelite nuns from Compiègne during the violent aftermath of the French Revolution, and written when Poulenc was experiencing a major personal crisis, Dialogues is by no means a conventional opera. There is no romantic love interest, and, as the title indicates, the work consists of various dialogues, mostly on the nature of religious faith and attitudes toward grace and death. As my companion at the performance laconically remarked, “It’s like a gloomy Sound of Music.” Yet, even if the hills are not alive in this opera, the grueling subject matter, when combined with the beauty of Poulenc’s music, makes for an unforgettable evening.

Carsen, who must be one of the most versatile opera producers around, has created a staging of searing simplicity, a far cry from the glorious zaniness of his recent production of Rameau’s Platée at the Opéra Comique in Paris.

Unlike some productions of Dialogues, which have tended to overload the stage with religious iconography, Carsen strips it almost completely bare, instead using human bodies as props in an intensely dramatic way. At times, a menacingly large revolutionary crowd (made up in this production of a 67-strong community ensemble with participants who have previously been homeless, in trouble with the law or long-term unemployed) fills the stage, and when the central character, Blanche de la Force, receives a visit from her brother in the convent, they are separated by a stunningly effective wall of veiled nuns. Special mention should also be made of the very effective lighting design by Jean Kalman.

Although the two francophone singers, Sophie Koch as Mother Marie and Yann Beuron as Blanche’s brother, are, not surprisingly, most at ease in the French idiom, there are no weak links in the cast. Sally Matthews as the headstrong Blanche, who leaves her aristocratic family to become a novice nun, and Anna Prohaska as the sunny-natured Constance sing and act with conviction. Veteran American soprano Deborah Polaski is magnificent as the ailing Prioress Madame de Croissy, whose death in the first act is far from exemplary, and it is good to see Covent Garden stalwart Thomas Allen back onstage as Blanche’s father.

And what of the famous final scene, during which the nuns sing a hymn on their way to the guillotine? Unlike those producers who use visual gimmicks (I remember watching with ghoulish fascination as heads rolled in a production at the Santa Fe Opera Festival years ago), Carsen, in collaboration with Philippe Giraudeau, the movement director, opts for a movingly choreographed final dance. It left this reviewer in tears.


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