Review – Poulenc Dialogues des Carmélites

RNCM soloists, chorus and orchestra

RNCM Manchester

Saturday 14 December 2019

A stunning staging of Poulenc’s emotional opera

****

This was the final performance of the RNCM’s staging of Poulenc’s opera, Dialogues des Carmélites, set in a Carmelite monastery during the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. It’s a deeply religious work appearing towards the end of his life in the 1950s, a couple of decades after the sparkling frivolity of his early works was wrenched in a new direction by the violent death of a close friend and a visit to the sanctuary at Rocamadour,

A few days earlier I’d just heard of the tragic death of my colleague … As I meditated on the fragility of our human frame, I was drawn once more to the life of the spirit. Rocamadour had the effect of restoring me to the faith of my childhood.

The staging was superb, beautifully designed and evocatively lit. The main set was split into two levels, both painted a pristine white, the lower level sometimes looking like a Dutch painting drained of all colour by the stark white light. This was desecrated in Act III by the brief incursion of the Revolutionaries who had ripped the religious symbols off the walls, sprayed the lower walls with the slogan “god is dead”, the staircase with the word ‘liars’, and the upper wall with an anarchist symbol.

RNCM’s Dialogues des Carmélites (c) Robert Workman

And in Act III the stark, timeless simplicity of the nuns’ costumes contrasted shockingly with the brutal black leather of the riot police with their plastic shields and the garish colour of the revolutionaries’ costumes. The nuns remained at the still centre of the violently turning world.

But impressive and dramatic as the staging is, the opera is about the inner drama of the characters and the terrible beauty of the decision to nuns sacrifice themselves to the guillotine at the end of the opera. This was effectively staged, each nun throwing her head back and dropping her cloak to the floor to represent her execution, the human soul then leaving the body as each nun slowly left the stage. Poulenc’s music does most of the emotional work, the chorus of nuns becoming smaller and smaller as each nun disappears with the swift metallic sound of the guillotine. There were some tears in the audience.

The Soprano Yuliya Shkvarko was fresh-voiced and impressive as Blanche, youthful and convincing as Blanche de la Force courageously facing her moral dilemmas. A moment of horror was well-expressed when she dropped a figurine of the Christ Child from the upper part of the set and it smashed. Her young companion, the soprano Pasquale Orchard was equally good as Sister Constance. The older women impressed too – Molly Barker was moving as Madame de Croissy, sitting in anguished pain writhing in her wheelchair before she fell to the floor in a bathetic death that was too small for her, like an ill-fitting coat as the libretto says. Georgia Ellis as Mother Marie and Mariya Sevdanska as Madam Lidoine led the Sisters impressively, contrasting well with Blanche and Constance.

There were a couple of minor problems – the surtitles failed to fire up during the first Act, making it a little hard to follow, and there were some early tuning issues in the orchestra which gradually blossomed under Andrew Greenwood.

RNCM’s Dialogues des Carmélites (c) Robert Workman

But the final word belonged to Blanche, joining Constance at the very last minute to be guillotined, with a beatific smile.

Kent Nagano’s classic recording of the final scene of the opera

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