Carmelites for a decade

10 Jun

Dialogues des Carmélites is one of those operas that I don’t want to see that often. It’s not that I don’t admire it but rather that it can seem quite heavy and ponderous if I see it too often. I remember hugely admiring the first run of ENO performances in 1999 and finding myself rather bored by the second, five years later. It’s never going to be a popular opera and it’s interesting that, even with Simon Rattle conducting, the Opera House weren’t able to sell out even a relatively short run.

Nearly a decade on and the freshness has returned and I found myself immensely admiring the skill and individuality of Poulenc’s opera. It’s a deceptively artless piece – what feels like a series of disjointed scenes grows in intensity as the characters are developed and the situation becomes more serious. It’s a meditation on change, on faith, on death and on community and relationships. I love the depiction of the Constance/Blanche relationship, that between Blanche and the Prioress and the scene between Blanche and her brother. And the last couple of scenes are impressive and moving.

The score itself came across wonderfully in Simon Rattle’s hands. He didn’t make it sound too delicate and he caught some of jazzier, almost cabaret textures in the score – the slightly rasping brass. He paced it deliberately but got the orchestra to reflect the feelings onstage – again, the scene between Blanche and her brother was achingly tender and emotional. He managed the last scene really well. I’ve heard the guillotine sound almost comic. Here is came across naturally, arising out of the sound world in the score while still letting you hear the head fall into the basket. This was wonderful conducting and it’s good to have him back.

Robert Carsen’s production appears to have been round most of the world since 1997, when it was new in Amsterdam – rather as Margherita Wallman’s first production was replicated round most of the world. I actually feel that this is an example of where buying in a very fine production like this actually works. Practically, you’re unlikely to want to do it again that decade and, if the production is this fine, why not use it?

This is the first production by Carsen that I’ve seen which has actually made me understand his reputation. It’s set on a bare stage, surrounded by grey walls. A vast crowd of the Community Ensemble provides the crowd of revolutionaries and populace and helps move from one scene to another. There are some wonderful effects. In the last scene, rather than lining up for the guillotine, the nuns stand, singing and gradually and very slowly fall the floor following each stroke. Before that they moved in their black to the back of the stage, almost disappearing against the black of the crowd and then took off their black coats, appearing in white, almost like a shaft of light. There’s emptiness for the Prioress’s death, claustrophobia for the prison scene and a lovely point where the shroud over the prioress’s body is lifted to reveal the flowers on her grave. The direction of the acting is strong. Visually this is as good a Carmelites as I’d hope to see.

The cast was very good individually but I wondered how well they worked as an ensemble. If most of your cast are nuns then, they can be difficult to tell apart and you need to have a variety of voices to get the characterisation across, particularly if the lighting often obscures faces. I had considerable problems working out whether I was watching Mère Marie or the Young Prioress or even Blanche.  Part of this was probably to do with Sophie Koch as Mère Marie. She’s a lovely singer but I find her voice and acting can be a bit anonymous. It’s a role that can be hugely impressive – the second in command who never becomes Prioress and who doesn’t join the nuns at the end – I remember what Josephine Barstow made of it at ENO. Koch – well, it’s not a voice that you instantly recognise and I felt that there was more to the role than she found. I wanted more contrast between her and Emma Bell’s Young Prioress. Maybe Valerie Masterson in 1983 was at the optimistic end of the casting but she brought a youth and infectious enthusiasm to the role. Bell was more serious and, while she sang beautifully and acted well, I’m not sure that you need a Leonora or Elsa for the role.

Sally Harrison caught the humanity and the fallibility of Blanche, if not the fragility and sang gorgeously. Anna Prohaska was a really lovely, impulsive Constance and I’ll happily see her back here. Deborah Polaski was marvellous as the Old Prioress: it’s a gift of a role for an experienced singer and she played it for all it was worth.

Thomas Allen made a marvellous cameo of the old Chevalier de la Force and I very much enjoyed Yann Beuron’s performance as his son – the duet with Blanche was one of the high points of the evening. The smaller roles were more mixed, though Ashley Riches and David Butt Philips stood out, together with Alan Oke’s confessor. The chorus was great and the community group provided huge concentration and a threatening mass appearance. It’s good to see so many people on the Opera House stage.

At the end there was a silence as the lights faded, one that was deeply appreciative or a strong and moving performance.  There’s one more performance and it’s worth catching.  I’ll not be unhappy if I don’t see the opera again until the next decade but I’m glad that my Carmelites for this one was as special as this.


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