27 Feb 2018

Dialogues de Carmélites at the Guildhall School: spiritual transcendence and transfiguration

Four years have passed since my last Dialogues des Carmélites, and on that occasion - Robert Carsen’s production for the ROH - heightened dramatic intensity, revolutionary insurrection (enhanced by an oppressed populace formed by a 67-strong Community Ensemble) and, under the baton of Simon Rattle, luxuriant musical rapture, were the order of the day.

This new production which Martin Lloyd-Evans has devised for the postgraduate opera students at the Guildhall School may share some of Carsen’s and his designer Michael Levine’s visual minimalism but it is altogether a calmer, more intimate affair. Lloyd-Evans, conductor Dominic Wheeler and the young cast pay great respect to this challenging work: it is no mean feat to sustain a pretty well unrelievedly intense mood for so long, so effectively.

The production team achieve this through a combination of period-specific detail, simple iconographic statements by designer takis, and Robbie Butler’s striking lighting design, which work collectively to both link the tableaux-like episodes of Poulenc’s narrative and allow space for symbolic gesture. Poulenc’s Stravinkian ostinatos injected momentum into the unfolding rituals. Admittedly, though, spiritual serenity can be achieved at the expense of inflamed passions, and some of the crowd scenes fell a little flat, lacking a palpable sense of menace and terror.

And, though the Guildhall School tackled Poulenc’s opera just seven years ago, it does seem a strange choice for a student production given that there are so few roles for the men - and for those chaps taking those roles that do exist there is not much time to establish credibility of character - and that even the plentiful prioresses are seldom individualised. Moreover, the grandeur of the choral scenes might seem to require more forces and funds than the average music college can muster.

Commissioned in 1953 by La Scala, Dialogues des Carmélites is based on a play by Georges Bernanos which dramatises the experiences of a neurotically anxious young aristocrat, Blanche de la Force, who, in search of spiritual peace and safety, leaves her family home at the beginning of the French Revolution to join the Carmelite order in Compiègne. But, the convent walls cannot keep out Revolutionary convictions. Blanche and her fellow sisters are arrested and while she initially flees from the oath of martyrdom that they have all taken under the guidance of the formidable Mère Marie, as her sisters embrace the ultimate sacrifice, Blanche returns to take her place at the scaffold.

What seems important, and what Lloyd-Evans and takis clearly appreciate, is that this is not an opera about the French Revolution. Indeed, I can’t find, or write myself, a better explanation of what the opera is ‘ about’ than this ‘explanation’ by Donald Spoto’s explanation in Opera News fifteen years ago:

‘It is rather a series of nearly classical dialogue-scenes in which issues and questions of deeply human and religious significance are set forth, explored and clarified. The key to its complex of ideas is to be found in certain matters of the faith that claimed the loyalties of Poulenc and of Georges Bernanos, whose lifelong motto was set forth at the end of his novel Journal d’un Curé de Campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1936): “Tout est grâce” - everything is grace.’ [1]

This concept is powerfully embodied in one line in the libretto, when the Le Prieure warns the overly fervent, naively self-righteous Blanche, who is seeking to enter the order, ‘Prayer alone justifies our existence .... we are bound to it day and night’. These words may be difficult for a non-believer to understand or empathise with, but they underpin the opera, and Lloyd-Evans’ production. The musical set-pieces of observance - the Qui Lazarum, Ave Verum Corpus and Salve Regine - are architectural linchpins in the unfolding sequence of tableaux through which the spiritual journeys of Blanche and Mère Marie is conveyed. During the performance I was reminded of the words of one of my colleagues, Anne Ozorio, who, writing of the last GSMD production in 2011 observed that, ‘Dialogues des Carmélites … unfolds as a series of disconnected tableaux, like the Stations of the Cross. This structure is significant, for Poulenc is connecting the nun’s journey to the guillotine to Christ’s journey to the cross. The narrative is deliberately stylized to emphasize the spiritual and moral implications of the plot. It’s not simple narrative.’

Various hanging flats - interior walls, marble edifices, grilles that evoke both confessional chambers and prison gates (and when florally decorated, garden trellises) - slide, diverge and re-form, at one point forming an air-borne Crucifix, and ultimately coalesce as a granite headstone memorialising the life of Blanche de la Force. The subtle movement and prevailing stillness expressed an unassailable spiritual nobility.

Claire Lees (Soeur Constance); Jake Muffett (1er Officer); Meriel Cunningham (Mere Gerald); Michael Vickers (Le Marquis); Eva Gheorghiu (Soeur Felicite).jpgClaire Lees (Soeur Constance); Jake Muffett (1er Officer); Meriel Cunningham (Mere Gerald); Michael Vickers (Le Marquis); Eva Gheorghiu (Soeur Felicite). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Lucy Anderson’s Blanche was fittingly unbalanced and febrile, and if at first, in the scene with Michael Vicker’s luxuriously costumed Marquis de la Force, her broad vibrato diffused the focus of the tone, then later, when paradoxically attired in humble habit, the rich layers of her soprano blossomed with lyric intensity. I was pleased, too, that the oft-cut spoken scene, which links the final conversation between Marie and Blanche and the assembling of the nuns in their prison cell, was retained. Blanche’s street encounter with citizens who tell her of the arrest of the nuns and are astonished by the emotive response of this ‘servant’ who declares she has never been to Compiègne, is pivotal to her remorseful acceptance of her place beside her sisters at the scaffold.

Chloë Latchmore’s Mère Marie was superbly acted and sung. She movingly conveyed the spiritual misunderstandings that this fervent but sometimes misguided nun must face, and her struggle to truly understand the new prioress’s guidance that, ‘It is not up to us to decide whether our names will later appear in a list of martyrs’ was deeply affecting. Latchmore has a strong middle voice but can also project convincingly at the top, whatever the dynamic; this was an utterly convincing vocal and dramatic performance.

Georgia Mae Bishop threw her all into the Prioress’s all too human fears of death (though the quasi-Gothic blue/black eye-shadow was perhaps a supernatural step too far). Claire Lees captured Sister Constance’s gaiety and unpretentious spiritual vision. The French diction of the entire cast was exemplary.

Dominic Wheeler’s direction of the Guildhall School's instrumentalists reminded me how sympathetic and helpful Poulenc’s orchestral writing is to the voices: at times the orchestral fabric becomes a huge organ-like tapestry, supporting their arioso lines. Elsewhere, the strings in particular conjured an almost Tchaikovskian lyricism and ardency, while finely delineated woodwind playing was complemented by warm and pretty reliable horns.

With the first UK performance of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking ­ (at the Barbican Hall last Tuesday) fresh in my mind, the obvious narrative parallels with Poulenc’s opera seemed strong. But, in Dialogues, the spiritual mysteries are in the music itself, something which to me seemed lacking in Heggie’s score, and Wheeler did much to communicate the ambiguities and conflicts.

Much, of course, rests upon the opera’s final scene. Some might have wished for more melodrama than Lloyd-Evans offered, but, for me, this opera is about sacrifice - a journey through fear of death to faith in martyrdom - and this needs no grand gestures. Earlier in the opera, the second prioress confronts the Revolutionary Officer who comes to arrest the nuns, and who taunts their readiness to remove their religious habits: ‘Your uniform does not make you a soldier.’ And, while Lloyd-Evans’ closing gesture pays a nod to the opening image of Carsen’s production - of neatly folded habits decorously arrayed across the ROH stage - as each of the nuns stepped forward and placed her brown habit on the ground, and the shocking swishing of the guillotine sent shudders through the instrumental texture, we understood that this humble ‘offering’ was a sign of spiritual serenity and transcendence.

Claire Seymour

Poulenc: Dialogues de Carmélites

Blanche - Lucy Anderson, Le Chevalier/Premier Commissaire - Daniel Mullaney, L’Aumônier - Eduard Mas Bacardit, Le Marquis - Michael Vickers, Premier Officer - Jake Muffet, Le Prieure/Mère Jeanne - Georgia Mae Bishop, Soeur Constance - Claire Lees, Mère Marie - Chloë Latchmore, La seconde Prieure - Michelle Alexander, Soeur Mathilde - Lucy McAuley, Deuxième Commissaire/Theirry/M.Javelinot/Le Geôlier - Bertie Watson; director - Martin Lloyd-Evans, conductor - Dominic Wheeler, scenography and costume designer - takis, lighting designer - Robbie Butler.

Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Silk Street, London; Monday 26 th February 2018.


[1] Donald Spoto, ‘Dialogue on Carmélites II: A Roman Catholic's Perspective’, Opera News, Jan 2003, Vol. 67, Issue 7.