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Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Quidenham, Norfolk - Windows Two of 16 windows in the clerestory [Source: Wikipedia]
06 Mar 2011

Dialogues des Carmélites, Guildhall, London

Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is an unusual opera, but much sensitive musical thinking has gone into this production at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London.

Francis Poulenc: Dialogues des Carmélites

Marquis de la Force: Gary Griffiths, Koji Terada, Le Chevalier: Charlie Mellor, Paul Curievici, Blanche: Anna Patalong, Natalya Romaniv, Thierry: Matthew Wright, Madame de Crioissy: Cátia Moreso, Soeur Constance: Sophie Junker, Mère Marie: Sylvie de Bedouelle, Amy J Payne, Mère Jeanne: Sioned Davies, Madame Lidione: Sky Ingram, Monsiuer Javelinot: Matthew Stiff, L'Aumonier: Alberto Sousa, Soeur Mathilde: Roisin Walsh, Premier Commissaire: Alexandros Tsilogiannis. Conductor: Clive Timms, Director: Stephen Barlow, Designer: David Farley, Lighting: Declan Randall, Video design: Chris Jackson. Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, 3, 5, 7 and 9th March 2011.

Above: Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Quidenham, Norfolk - Windows Two of 16 windows in the clerestory [Source: Wikipedia]


Dialogues des Carmélites is an unusual opera because it 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.

Poulenc further emphasizes the non-linear progression by writing expressive interludes which are as much part of the story as the text. This subtle distinction can be lost in productions that treat the opera as straightforward drama. Instead, at the Guildhall the staging respects Poulenc’s musical and theological structure.

Dark, fractured shards shroud the stage. They shards resemble broken glass, as if the audience is peering through a window that has been shattered. For the French Revolution has shattered society: everything’s being smashed, the convent, the aristocracy and innocent lives. It’s also a vivid metaphor for Poulenc’s edgy, angular music thrusts and cuts relentlessly. No easy lyricism here even if Poulenc’s idiom is easier on the ear than many other composers might be, given such material. This production, directed by Stephen Barlow and designed by David Farley, is impressive because it’s so musically astute.

There are no less than 12 scene changes in this opera excluding the three extended interludes, which creates many technical problems. This staging is simple - boards covered by what looks like velour - but it’s effective. Between the many different tableaux, the shards close together, hiding the stage from view. This focuses attention on the crucial “scenes” in the orchestra. Lit from behind, the shards esemble rocks (lighting design: Declan Randall). Dramatic momentum isn’t lost because the scene changes are so quick.

This is what good stagecraft should be, created around music and meaning. This isn’t a typical opera because it’s very direct and to the point. Because the music is so formal, and the philosophical choices so stark, too much fussy literalism would act against the very purpose of this opera. There are men in uniform (just as the nuns are in uniform) but the horrific scene at the Place de la Revolution is treated with restraint on the stage.

The guillotine is shown only in the distance, hidden by the mob, who are dressed in shades of red. As the mob moves, the red mass moves, like a gory stream of blood. No need to depict the executions, for the image expresses so much and allows the nuns their dignity. They stand in a line confronting the audience. In real life they’d hardly be wearing immaculate vestments, but spiritually they’re already among the angels, as one by one, each nun is picked out by spotlight. At last the shards are vanquished, like the barbarism they depict. Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ is shown alone in a moment of glory, transfigured with light.

Barlow, Farley and Randall are professionals. Barlow is well regarded for his work at Opera Holland Park, London. Although he’s young, he’s also worked at the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne and the Met. This exchange between professionals and students is fruitful, because the students learn the business as it’s practiced in the market.

It’s a pleasure to watch how the GSMD students respond. For a change, they’re acting very well, for Barlow’s good at directing people. Very natural movement, often closely co-ordinated with musical detail. Nicely blocked crowd scenes, concentrated when needed (as in the mob), diffuse when the nuns feel isolated in their travail. The nuns are treated like individuals, which is what they are, despite the regimentation of the Carmel. Principals are well cast too - it’s good to hear familiar voices get good exposure.

The role of Blanche in Dialogues des Carmélites is interesting, because Poulenc isn’t explicit but hints at worrying traits of neurosis and self-delusion. Something’s very not right about a girl who screams at the butler’s shadow and causes her brother such anguish. Nowadays such girls wouldn’t be accepted into the novitiate. Whoever sings Blanche needs to fill in the backstory for herself, so it’s convincing when Blanche’s resolve develops and makes her sacrifice. Anna Patalong sings 3/3 and 7/3, Natalya Romaniw on 5/3 and 9/3. They’re both major names at GSMD, attractive voices and reliable.

Blanche is emotionally vulnerable while the old Mother Superior, Madame de Croissy (Cátia Moreso) seems strong but dies a traumatic death. It’s a high point in the opera because it reverses the idea of a pious person being free from doubt. Moreso sings with a force that belies her supposed physical weakness, but Poulenc’s not into literalism but spiritual veracity. Just as Blanche’s music is hyper, so is Mme de Croissy’s, though of course in different ways. Both are more affected by the turmoil around them than they let on.

Mère Marie (Sylvie de Bedouelle and Amy J Payne), Mère Jeanne (Sioned Davies) and Madame Lidoine (Sky Ingram) are all strong, conventional characters. The book that inspired the play on which Poulenc based his opera was written by a German feminist, Gertrud von le Fort, who could see what was happening around her in the 1930’s. The French Revolution didn’t have a monopoly on mobs. The male principals too are relatively conventional parts, very solidly created. Gary Griffiths and Koji Terada alternate as the Marquis de la Force, Charlie Mellor and Paul Curievici as the Chevalier and Alberto Sousa sings the Priest

The role of Soeur Constance is sometimes underestimated. She’s the nun who drives Blanche to distraction because she’s irrepressibly cheerful. Sophie Junker sings the part vivaciously, for Barlow directs her to leap and dance. Psychologically right, although Carmelites are a semi-silent order. Constance isn’t a typical heroine, but she’s central to the plot because it’s she who understands what the Mother Superior’s death means, throwing the nun’s eventual deaths into perspective. .

Yet Dialogues des Carmélites, despite its religious subject, isn’t as solemn as might seem. It’s distinctively Poulenc, and Poulenc is sardonic. Blanche is devout but her music verges on deranged. The Prioress acts like she’s older than Methuselah but she’s only 59 (and Poulenc lets us know exactly how her life was divided). Her death scene’s over the top, so the nuns are shocked. This is doubly ironic when you realize Poulenc’s best friend was dying when he wrote this music. Perhaps it’s a form of whistling in graveyard, avoiding pain by denying its power. Typical Poulenc irony. Listen to some of the key wind parts, too, especially the sour-sweet solos, and the raucous churning in the strings. Soeur Constance’s lively spirit could come straight out of Banalités (which are anything but banal) or Les mamelles de Tirésias. Poulenc’s elegant, ironic wit cannot be silenced any more than the nuns’ faith can be suppressed.

Anne Ozorio

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