Dialogues des Carmélites, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, May 2014Posted on 30 May 2014
Premiered at the Netherlands Opera in 1997, Robert Carsen’s award winning production has done the rounds before making its London debut as the first Carmélites at the ROH since 1983. Aesthetically abstract, it uses clever lighting on an open stage, and the vast number of chorus and extras emphasise the mass psychology underpinning the reign of terror after the French Revolution. The guillotine did its ‘cleansing’ and the execution of the Compiègne Carmelites in 1794 was told by Mother Marie, who survived and lived until 1836. In 1931 Gertrude von Le Fort turned her report into a novel, writing herself into the story as Blanche de la Force. The opera starts in the house of her father, the Marquis de la Force, and moves to the convent she is determined to enter.
All is one here on the open stage, but lighting is of the essence. The use of spots allows characters such as Blanche to appear from nowhere, and for the Act I death agonies of the old Prioress we see two large overlapping squares of light slightly out of kilter with one another. As Sister Constance says, it is as if God made an error giving her the wrong death, like being given the wrong coat from a cloakroom. In Act III a single square of light reappears, uniting the nuns in prison.
Other patterns also repeat in changed form. For instance when the old Prioress lies on her deathbed, nuns in black lie like crosses face down with arms spread out, and in the final scene the nuns in white lie like crosses face up after the guillotine has struck and each one has slipped gracefully to the floor. Blanche joins them when only Constance is left standing, and after she has fallen, Blanche raises her arms in a final transfiguration.
Robert Carsen has given us very pleasing aesthetics, with superb lighting by Jean Kalman and excellent movement by Philippe Giraudeau. Yet while the abstraction lifts the earthy menace of the revolutionaries to a more ethereal level it also gives a less visceral connection to the opera, and the tension does not build to enough of a climax towards the end. No such problem with the music, however.
Simon Rattle’s conducting brought powerful astringency from the orchestra in moments of tension, and huge power when needed such as the end of Act II after the baby Jesus smashes to ground. Wonderful singing from the whole cast, particularly the five main nuns: Deborah Polaski (marvellous as the old Prioress), Sophie Koch (Mother Marie), Sally Matthews (Blanche), Anna Prohaska (Constance), and Emma Bell (showing glorious strength and purity as the new Prioress). Fine singing too from the men, with Luis Gomes taking over very well from Yann Beuron after Act I as Blanche’s brother the Chevalier de la Force, Thomas Allen as their father, and particularly the vocal strength of Alan Oke as Father Confessor to the convent.
There is little vocal work for the chorus, but the movement of crowds and their stationary presence at the edge of the action is a powerful reminder of the world outside.
Performances continue on various dates until June 11, with a live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on June 7 at 7pm — for details click here.