Dialogues des Carmélites, Grange Park Opera, June 2013Posted on 12 June 2013
This opera about life and death, about choices made under conditions where society has been led into temporary insanity, deserves and received a production of great simplicity that allowed Poulenc’s music to speak for itself. With excellent vocal performances and orchestral playing under the direction of Stephen Barlow this was a deeply moving experience.
The story is based on an event in 1794 during France’s reign of terror when the inhabitants of a Carmelite convent were sent to the guillotine after conviction without trial, which had become the norm at that point. In Poulenc’s opera while the new prioress is away the nuns take a vow of martyrdom so that by their witness (martyr means witness) to the power of God they can save France. Their execution at the end is a sublime moment as they move one by one to an off-stage guillotine singing the Salve Regina. Sister Blanche, who has been absent from their prison, joins them at the end singing Deo Patria sit Gloria … the last verse of Veni, creator Spiritus. After she exits, the trombones raise their instruments for one last chord and it is all over.
Blanche, the young daughter of a Marquis, was beautifully sung by Korean soprano Hye-Youn Lee, amply portraying her vulnerability and fear. Nicky Spence was outstanding as her brother the Chevalier de la Force, and later in the opera Nigel Robson gave a strong performance as the Chaplain. In the meantime, Anne-Marie Owens as the old prioress showed her agony and fear with a moving death scene, while Soraya Mafi, singing with beautiful clarity as the cheerful young peasant Sister Constance, saw her advanced age (actually only 59) as a suitable point to meet ones maker. This opera, despite its serious tone, enjoys some light moments. No flippancy however from Mère Marie, strongly sung by Sara Fulgoni, who encourages the martyrdom yet is unable to be part of it, and Fiona Murphy was excellent as the new prioress, who joins the group of martyrs though it was all done without her original consent.
Altogether a very strong cast, and the spare designs by Liz Ashcroft, with lighting by Paul Keogan served John Doyle’s production very well. There was a welcome austerity to everything, from the plain cloths and wooden board to the ten candles extinguished early on and replaced by ten nuns, extinguished at the end, along with six others.
Simplicity is the watchword of this powerful opera that expresses so much in the music, as when the revolutionaries sing about rivers of blood and you can hear the ripples in the orchestra. In the end the fate of the nuns transcends their death on 17 July 1794, but for Robespierre there was no transcendence — he was guillotined in some agony on 28 July. Compare that to the prioress, who returns to join the martyrdom asking what mother would sacrifice her children, though that of course is precisely what the Reign of Terror did to its own.
The final performance is on July 12 — for details click here.