Dialogues des CarmÈlites, Royal Opera

A scene from Boublil’s and Schˆnberg’s Les MisÈrables?
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 CarmÈlites 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.

PR8A0247.gifSally 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 CarmÈlites 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

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.

PR8A0495.gifEmma 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’ CarmÈlite 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-CarmÈlite 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

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.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Blanche, Sally Matthews; Constance, Anna Prohaska; Madame Lidoine,
Emma Bell; MËre 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

image_description=Sophie Koch as Mother Marie [Photo © ROH / Stephen Cummiskey]
product_title=Dialogues des CarmÈlites, Royal Opera
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id= Above: Sophie Koch as Mother Marie

Photos © ROH / Stephen Cummiskey