15 Jul 2010

Dialogues des Carmélites from Hamburg

Poulenc’s only full-length opera is widely admired and not infrequently performed, but its claustral nature makes it tricky to stage.

Nikolas Lehnhoff has devised a canny and imaginative strategy for making visual and dramatic sense of this opera, so lacking (until the end) in overt theatricality. Lehnhoff’s idea is to use a single set, unfurnished except with the absolute minimum of props, a big box with broad blue and black stripes, like gift wrapping seen from inside. The set is static, except that the black verticals can be lifted; this spare action can sometimes have real dramatic force. Both the house of Marquis de la Force and the convent are in effect prisons, whose bars sometimes make themselves conspicuous. This is appropriate to the police-state world of revolutionary France (and to Nazi Germany, where Gertrud von le Fort wrote, in 1931, the novel on which Bernanos’ play and Poulenc’s libretto are based). But there is more to the prison theme than an allusion to a political situation: to the religious, the whole earth is a kind of jail.

Lehnhoff makes good use of the physical properties of his set near the end of act 2, where the screens raise and the convent is suddenly permeable to the revolutionaries (costumed more like storm-troopers than like Jacobins); and at the end of act 1, when, at the death of the old Prioress, the convent is suddenly flooded with light, as if theological grace had itself descended. It is a beautiful moment: silent nuns stand between the bars, like the array of servants posed in Mélisande’s death chamber at the end of Debussy’s opera—the silent nuns foreshadow the arresting tableau in the execution scene, where the screens fall down, like guillotines, or even pile-drivers, as the nuns are beheaded one by one.

Still, the stage set, while good to think about, is still, too often, a bore: and its austerity is false to this non-austere opera about austerity. There are a few moments of overt gaiety, such as Sister Constance’s dancing, but also touches of wild, even surreal humor in many strange corners: in the first scene the Marquis remembers mob terror to a musical passage right out of Poulenc’s surrealist skit Les mamelles de Tirésias; and the nice commissaire at the end of act 2 gets comical music of the sort Strauss used for Aegisth in Elektra. These glints are also a manifestation, from Poulenc’s point of view, of the Holy Ghost, but are not realized in the relentless severity of this staging. T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, which Dialogues des Carmélites resembles in its concentration on martyrdom as an act of self-surrender rather than an act of self-aggrandisement, makes the low comedy that counterpoints the saint’s death still more striking; but I think that the director of the Poulenc opera also needs to attend to its subliminal zaniness.

Daniel Albright