Dialogues of the Carmelites is a good choice for a student production – there is a fine selection of roles across the board, and especially for women, with the extra challenge that several of the key roles need to be played as middle-aged. The orchestral score too is varied in texture and gives plenty of fine solo opportunities. The cast, players and creatives here bring great urgency and commitment to a work that responds to full-blooded idealism, and which cannot work with a hint of half-heartedness. The long silence at the final curtain as the final chords resolve was testament to the deep impression this production made on its audience.
The dilemmas and fate of a convent of nuns during the French Revolution is not the sort of subject that immediately grabs the attention of a secular age, and yet it is hard to overestimate the impact that Poulenc’s masterpiece of the late 1950s makes each time it is performed, and how urgent its themes still seem. The nature of identity and vocation, the extent to which fear (or fear of fear) governs our actions, the demands of faith and potential martyrdom, the quest for meaningful identity in a random and meaningless world of disconcerting violence and fragmented certainties. These are only some of the subjects that form the part of the ‘dialogues’ and debates between the characters, as the nuns confront the dissolution of both their Order and the Old Order as a whole.
Lest readers think this is abstract stuff, what makes it so memorable is the tremulously vulnerable, determinedly defiant, yet humane qualities of the contrasted women involved, with whom we can readily identify in their foibles and anxieties, yet also admire in their resolution and courage. Poulenc poured all the conflicts and uncertainties of his own life into the work – his embrace of sensuality and witty humour on the one hand, and his guilty piety, austere self-contempt, fearful doubt, and terror of death on the other.
The same can be said of the music, which can be perfumed and smoochily seductive at the most unexpected moments, but also grave, incisive and monumental in the style of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Much of the material is written in a heightened arioso format but with moments too for all the singers to shine individually, quite apart from the set-piece choral moments and especially the overwhelming finale setting of the Salve Regina, which always impresses and moves in performance.
Based on a real episode from the Terror, the action focuses on the experiences of a convent of Carmelite nuns in Compiegne whose house was dissolved and ransacked by a mob before they all were guillotined on false grounds of plotting against the revolution. As the title suggests, what matters here are the debates and disputes between the various nuns, and a selection of figures from the increasingly alarming outside world: abstract dilemmas are driven forcefully through to real-life decisions of life and death with an unsparing truthfulness that draws the audience in engrossingly.
It is a long work – three acts – and needs to move swiftly along for the most part through the many scenes. This was a weakness in the first scene of exposition, where the pace was too slow, but once we reached the convent walls, things picked up all round. Experienced director Martin Lloyd-Evans creates a fluent sense of movement together with impressively statuesque tableaus, and the many scene changes run through swiftly without delay or mishap. Likewise Dominic Wheeler in the pit varies the dynamics skilfully and is well served by his players, barring some smudgy brass entries.
Part of the credit for this careful unfolding also lies with the semi-abstract set by takis, which consists of a series of rough-cast slabs and wire grills which can be lowered or raised to indicate walls and interior sub-divisions. With historical specificity coming from detailed period costumes the abstraction of the scenery provides a pleasing counterpoint, though the sightlines in the first scene are awkwardly arranged for some in the audience. There is also some excellent lighting from Robbie Butler, with the imprisoned nuns lit through grills from below standing out as an exceptional, suggestive image.
At the centre of the action is a paradox – that the central character, Sister Blanche, is apparently weak, vacillating and morbidly neurotic, and yet ascends to a believably heroic stature by the end of the opera. The role is demanding and fairly continuous and anyone playing her has a long emotional journey to make. Lucy Anderson does this very convincingly, with fine acting quite apart from finding the full vocal range from timorousness through to authority.
She is well matched by Claire Lees as Sister Constance, whom Poulenc creates as the classic pert soubrette to provide a contrast in voice and character with Blanche. She makes the most of the more comic and light moments of the work, which need to be there to provide a contrast within the otherwise mainly grave palette of moods.
One of the most skilful aspects of the opera is the way the issues – especially whether to embrace prudence or martyrdom – are refracted through the rivalries and personal tensions of the women in the group. There is a deftly drawn political rivalry between Mother Marie and the Second Prioress which tellingly dramatizes the contrast between a person of unbending principle and a temporising silver-tongued politician, though with the twist that it is the Second Prioress who rises to the final challenge with superb leadership and dignity, and Mother Marie who survives with the knowledge that the others died through her insistence on a vow of martyrdom. Chloë Latchmore’s portrayal of Mother Marie captures not only a fine plangency of voice but reveals skilful acting that registers the tensions this character experiences between principle and obedience; and Michelle Alexander matches her with a supple smoothness that graduates, whether willingly or not, into hieratic dignity and eloquence.
As so often in this work, the individual emotional peak comes with the death of the Old Prioress, as graphic and uncomfortable a portrait of an agonised, fearful end to life as opera provides. This prolonged scene requires real maturity and stamina in voice and acting, which Georgia Mae Bishop amply provides. The cast is completed with a variety of smaller roles for men, all of whom performed creditably, with Eduard Mas Bacardit particularly sweet on the ear as the priest who serves the spiritual needs of the convent, and with impeccable French diction.
This is a good choice for a student production – there is a fine selection of roles across the board, and especially for women, with the extra challenge that several of the key roles need to be played as middle-aged. The orchestral score too is varied in texture and gives plenty of fine solo opportunities. The cast, players and creatives here bring great urgency and commitment to a work that responds to full-blooded idealism, and which cannot work with a hint of half-heartedness. The long silence at the final curtain as the final chords resolve was testament to the deep impression this production made on its audience.