02 Jun 2014
Dialogues des Carmélites, Royal Opera
A black bare stage heaving with a rebellious revolutionary throng; they stare with still hostility directly at the audience, stark light streaming from above.
Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17. Perfection, as one would expect from arguably the finest Rameau interpreters in the business, and that's saying a lot, given the exceptionally high quality of French baroque performance in the last 40 years.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
A black bare stage heaving with a rebellious revolutionary throng; they stare with still hostility directly at the audience, stark light streaming from above.
A scene from Boublil’s and Schönberg’s Les Misérables? No. The opening moments of Robert Carsen’s much-acclaimed production of Poulenc’s opera of courage, cruelty and redemption.
In need of some insurgent sans culottes, Carsen has (in partnership with an unlikely alliance of Streetwise Opera, Synergy Theatre Project, the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama) supplemented his already large cast with a 67-strong ‘Community Ensemble’. Comprising those who ‘have experienced homelessness, the criminal justice system and long-term unemployment, as well as those studying drama and theatre in learning and community settings’, this massed crowd convincingly represents an oppressed, insurrectionary populace. Meticulously choreographed by Movement Director Philippe Giraudeau, they form a silent congregation of collective dissatisfaction and unrest — a palpable incarnation of menace and terror.
Dialogues des Carmélites presents a ‘true story’, recorded by a Carmelite nun, Sister Marie of the Incarnation, who survived the French Revolution. Her account of persecution and piety was subsequently presented in various forms by the German novelist, Gertrud von Le Fort and the playwright Georges Bernanos, and also adapted in a scenario by Philippe Agostini and the Rev. Bruckberger — the complex lineage being further knotted by the fact that writer Emmet Lavery had purchased the exclusive rights to Bernanos’ drama, causing Poulenc considerable difficulty when he sought to adapt his own libretto from Bernanos’ play.
Sally Matthews as Blanche
Despite the nonchalant indifference of her father, the Marquis de la Force, the young Blanche de la Force fears the mounting anarchic fervour in Revolutionary Paris; convincing the Carmelite Prioress of her vocation, she takes refuge in a convent but — despite the reputed protection of the Blessed Virgin — it rapidly becomes apparent that the cloistered walls are no safeguard against radical remonstration. The faith of the devout is tested, and the ultimate sacrifice is demanded.
Carsen’s production, designed for Netherlands Opera in 1997, has been widely seen and greatly admired worldwide in the years since; given that Dialogues des Carmélites has not graced the ROH stage since 1983, and that Sir Simon Rattle was scheduled to lead a fine cast of soloists (several of whom had previously performed roles in the 2008 revival at Theater an der Wien), one can understand the excitement and expectation surrounding the arrival of the production in London at last.
In many ways, it lives up to the hype. The minimalist staging is arresting and Carsen offers some powerful directorial gestures which are complemented by Jean Kalman’s expressionistic lighting; the latter provides many ravishing, and fearsome, moments. The soloist excel. And, Rattle clearly knows and loves this score: the brass play with purity and restraint in the chorale-like passages, and Rattle creates an iridescent sound-world in which glistening harps ripple and luscious strings surge in rapture, coloured by silky woodwind slithers, but one which is also ominously punctuated by shuddering, jagged rhythmic bursts of terror and brutality. The percussive slashes of the final march to the scaffold reveal the full unleashed force of the Royal Opera House Orchestra.
Yet, despite Rattle’s care and attention — and Carsen’s imaginative faithfulness to the composer’s reputed preference for stagings which adopt a monastic austerity — there is no getting away from the fact that the score is dominated by an ever-repeating two-bar progression, in various harmonic inversions and timbral colourings, an infinite chain which becomes increasingly more wearisome and which makes it difficult to establish and sustain any driving musico-dramatic direction. Typical of the nature of Poulenc’s idiom is the terrifyingly moving final scene, which is underpinned by a rocking minor third; it is the raw rip of the slicing guillotine which provides the drama, rather than any harmonic conflict.
Emma Bell as Madame Lidoine
One cannot deny that there are moments of musical exhilaration and stunning dramatic frisson — the Father Confessor (Alan Oke) devoutly leading the doomed nuns in a last prayer; Blanche, in fear and hysteria forebodingly dropping the statue of the Infant Christ. When the Revolutionary forces finally confiscate the nuns’ Carmélite habits, there is a gripping encounter between Blanche (Sally Matthews), who has now fled the cloister in dread, and Mother Marie (Sophie Koch), who tries to convince her to return to save her soul. So, there is thus much gripping theatre; but it doesn’t feel like music-drama, and there are some scenes where Poulenc overly draws things out. At times Carsen’s direction emphasises this ‘static’ quality, the crowded tableaux serving like photographs or freeze frames out of which the principals step for momentary, self-contained dramas.
There is, however, still much to relish. Carsen’s production has a stark beauty: the bare stage is adorned with just a chair, some wooden trellises, a white-draped bed. The monochrome simplicity is intermittently lit in chiaroscuro, the gothic silhouettes which loom suddenly upon the black back walls suggesting the terrible menace of the mob beyond. Streaks of light and colour occasionally animate the darkness, communicating mood and meaning. Reserved for the aristocrats, the regal red velvet and heraldic purple silk of the opening scene emphasises the irreconcilable chasm between those within the chateau walls and those on the streets beyond.
Attired pre-Carmélite vows in a sumptuous ivory gown, Sally Matthews visually embodied the ‘Power of innocence’ that her name, Blanche de la Force, implies. And, while she was rather tremulous in the middle range, Matthews produced a bright clarity at the top when Blanche succumbs to her fears. She seemed, however, to lack an innate feeling for Poulenc’s limpid idiom and the soprano’s French diction was poor — although she was certainly not alone among the cast in this regard.
Blanche’s companion and confidante, Sister Constance, was sung with charm and vivacity by Anna Prohaska, capturing all of the independent-minded nun’s eccentricities and vigour. Prohaska brought a beguiling tenderness to the erratic nun’s passionate temperament. As Mother Marie of the Incarnation Sophie Koch was superb, consistently an authoritative musical and theatrical presence; luminous of voice, Koch also has the power to convey the Assistant Prioress’s steely centre and religious intensity, and her absence from the final scene was as moving as the tragic fates which await those who are present.
Emma Bell, as Madame Lidoine, the second Prioress, was also full of voice, and Deborah Polaski offered a deeply committed cameo as the dying Madame de Croissy. This Prioress was certainly not going quietly, raging frantically against death and life — if anything one would have liked even more vocal ugliness to scar the lyrical fervency. Even if one shares the initial reluctance to embrace the spirit of voluntary mass martyrdom felt by Blanche (for personal reasons) and Madame Lidoine (for doctrinal motives), and feels rather removed from the self-abnegations of institutional cloisters and the spirit of Catholic obedience and devotion which might inspire mass martyrdom, this was the visceral stuff of life and death.
Amid the multitude of female voices there were also strong performances by the men, despite the indisposition of Alan Oke — who nevertheless was a dignified Father Confessor — and Yann Beuron, who was replaced as Blanche’s brother, Chevalier de la Force, by Jette Parker Young Artist Luis Gomez in Act 2. Gomez sang with full-throated passion in a striking confrontation between the siblings, as the Chevalier tries to persuade his sister to flee with him to safety. Thomas Allen (Marquis de la Force), Neil Gillespie (the valet Thierry) and John Bernays (the physician Monsieur Javelinot) all made effective, if brief, contributions.
One problem with Poulenc’s libretto is that there is little sense of the nuns as individuals, no information about their lives before they have made their commitment to God: instead, they maintain their ubiquitous — and rather distancing — chant-like serenity to the last. In the shocking final scene, clothed in pure white underdresses, the condemned nuns slowly succumb to guillotine, their outstretched arms an icon of mankind’s ultimate sin and grace. The choric voice gradually diminishes. As the Salve Regina floats heavenwards, we are reminded of Carsen’s opening image: neatly folded habits arrayed decorously across the stage. We now understand that, swathed in silver light, they were a foreshadowing of the redemption and transcendence to come. With this closing intimation of resurrection Carsen offers his final masterstroke.
Cast and production information:
Blanche, Sally Matthews; Constance, Anna Prohaska; Madame Lidoine, Emma Bell; Mère Marie, Sophie Koch; Madame de Croissy, Deborah Polaski; Marquis de la Force, Thomas Allen; Chevalier de la Force, Yann Beuron; Mother Jeanne, Elizabeth Sikora; Sister Mathilde, Catherine Carby; Father Confessor, Alan Oke; First Commissary, David Butt Philip; Second Commissary, Michel de Souza; First Officer, Ashley Riches; Gaoler, Craig Smith; M. Javelinot, John Bernays; Thierry, Neil Gillespie.
Director, Robert Carsen; Conductor, Simon Rattle; Set designs, Michael Levine; Costume designs, Falk Bauer; Lighting design, Jean Kalman; Movement, Philippe Giraudeau; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House; Royal Opera Chorus. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Thursday 29th May 2014.