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Dialogues des Carmélites [Photo: Petrovsky & Ramone]
09 Nov 2015

Dialogues des Carmélites Revival at Dutch National Opera

If not timeless, Robert Carsen’s production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is highly age-resistant.

Dialogues des Carmélites Revival at Dutch National Opera

A review by Jenny Camilleri

Above: Dialogues des Carmélites [Photo: Petrovsky & Ramone]

All other photos by Hans van den Bogaard


As Dutch National Opera’s most successful export ever, it gets to be the only revival in the company’s celebratory 50th season. Eighteen years on, it is still overwhelming.

Musically, this revival is equally worthy of the 1957 masterpiece about the Carmelite nuns guillotined in 1794 during the Reign of Terror for refusing to renounce religious life. The Residentie Orkest under Stéphane Denève was nothing short of inspired. Wind solos wept quietly. The brass section, crucial in expressing anxiety churning itself into blind terror, distinguished itself, forgetting the odd rogue note, with honed technique and supreme control. Mr Denève kept things transparent, in service to the words. He conducted the interludes with elegant restraint and his graded build-up to the final horror had the feel of a superior thriller. In fact, Georges Bernanos’s play was written for the screen, and the opera’s division into twelve scenes, some of which start in mid-conversation, is partly why its structure feels so modern and familiar. No doubt Mr Denève’s pacing was the result of long study, but it came across as instinctive and uncontrived.

dialoguesdesca-bogaard(4).pngDoris Soffel as Madame de Croissy and Sally Matthews as Blanche

The whole cast, meticulously directed by Mr Carsen, gave theatrically acute performances, without as much as an eyebrow raised gratuitously. All the shorter roles were well-sung­. Michael Colvin made a convincing Chaplain. The women of the Dutch National Opera Chorus were top-notch, joining the soloists in a refulgent Act II Ave Maria and a note-perfect closing Salve Regina. Jean-François Lapointe and Stanislas de Barbeyrac as, respectively, Blanche’s father and brother, were both forceful and vocally rock-solid. Mr De Barbeyrac’s expressive dynamics made the Chevalier’s visit to his sister in the convent stand out as one of the more memorable scenes.

Sally Matthews injected the fearful, hypersensitive Blanche with toe-curling awkwardness, accentuating her self-hatred rather than her timidity. Vocally, her middle-to-lower range sounded clotted, but her missile-like top went a long way towards conveying the panic that has the novice nun in her grip. Michelle Breedt’s Mother Marie was probably caught on a lesser night. Upward climbs were marred by skidding and her lower notes did not project freely enough for this overbearing character. Mother Marie is, after all, the one who persuades the sisters to take a vow of martyrdom, although she herself is denied that glory. It would be useless to analyze where Doris Soffel’s mezzo-soprano tends to shake and spread—her Old Prioress was simply grand, every word thrumming with meaning, her dying howls terrifying. A frail woman brimming with tenderness one moment, a vocal tornado railing against God the next, Ms Soffel’s moribund nun was the stuff of nightmares, and of great moments at the opera. No less impressive was Sabine Devieilhe as that pious equivalent of the flibbertigibbet, Sister Constance. She propelled her laser-sharp soprano with a thrust that far exceeded its size and her text clarity and physical energy were a complete joy. Making her DNO debut, Adrianne Pieczonka brought vocal beauty and dignity to the role of Madame Lidoine. Her highest notes did not always come easily, but her ariosos, wrapped in the velvet of her luxurious timbre, revealed a deeply touching, motherly Prioress.

dialoguesdesca-bogaard(6).pngMichelle Breedt as Mère Marie and Sally Matthews as Blanche

Mr Carsen’s production affects with its simplicity, which belies a wealth of detail. The way the nuns lie face down around Madame de Croissy’s death bed, for example. It is the same position nuns assume when taking their vows and here it presages their death, while drawing a parallel between Blanche’s decision to die with them and her commitment to the order. Mr Carsen finds true poetry in his subjects, in the draping of their habits and the tranquil mechanics of their daily chores. As Poulenc’s music darts in and out of their inner life, Mr Carsen confines and opens spaces with minimal demarcations, such as spotlights and candles. The biggest barriers are human: the row of nuns forming a grille between Blanche and her brother, the angry crowd sweeping across the stage leaving disorder in its wake. In the end, the safest refuge is also human, not topographical. As Madame Lidoine says in her prison speech: “No one could take away from us the freedom that we surrendered with our vows so long ago.” By choosing a common destiny, the nuns conquer their fear. Despite the savage swipes of the guillotine, their Salve Regina rises in hopeful phrases. Their final prayer is an Ascension as well as an execution and staging it as an ethereal dance is pure genius.

Jenny Camilleri

Cast and production information:

Blanche: Sally Matthews, Le Marquis de la Force: Jean-François Lapointe, Le Chevalier: Stanislas de Barbeyrac, L'Aumônier du Carmel: Michael Colvin, Geôlier: Jean-Luc Ballestra, Madame de Croissy: Doris Soffel, Madame Lidoine: Adrianne Pieczonka, Mère Marie— Michelle Breedt, Soeur Constance de Saint Denis: Sabine Devieilhe, Mère Jeanne: Virpi Räisänen, Soeur Mathilde: Wilke te Brummelstroete, Officier: Roger Smeets, 1er Commissaire: Mark Omvlee, 2ième Commissaire: Harry Teeuwen, Thierry: Michael Wilmering, M. Javelinot: Sander Heutinck, Conductor: Stéphane Denève, Director: Robert Carsen, , Set Designer: Michael Levine, Costume Designer: Falk Bauer, Lighting Designer: Jean Kalman, Choreographer: Philippe Giraudeau, Dramaturge: Ian Burton, Dutch National Opera Choir, Residentie Orkest. Seen at Dutch National Opera & Ballet, Amsterdam, Saturday, 7th November 2015.

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