Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Dialogues des Carmélites, Royal Opera, 2 June 2014

Images: Stephen Cummiskey/Royal Opera House
Royal Opera House

Chevalier de la Force – Yann Beuron
Marquis de la Force – Sir Thomas Allen
Blanche de la Force – Sally Matthews
Thierry – Neil Gillespie
Mme de Croissy – Deborah Polaski
Sister Constance – Anna Prohaska
Mother Marie – Sophie Koch
M. Javelinot – John Bernays
Mme Lidoine – Emma Bell
Carmelites – Yvonne Barclay, Katy Batho, Tamsin Coombs, Eileen Hamilton, Anne Osborne, Deborah Peake Jones, Louise Armit, Andrea Hazell, Elizabeth Key, Kate McCarney, Deborah Pearce
Sister Mathilde – Catherine Carby
Mother Jeanne – Elizabeth Sikora
Chaplain – Alan Oke
First Commissary – David Butt Philip
Second Commissary – Michel de Souza
Officer – Ashley Riches
Gaoler – Craig Smith

Robert Carsen (director)
Michael Levine (set designs)
Falk Bauer (costumes)
Jean Kalman (lighting)
Philippe Giradeau (movement)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Stephen Westrop)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

This was a performance whose intensity increased almost immeasurably as the evening went on. That seemed to be as much a matter of the production as the conducting, of the singing as the orchestral playing, although there were, of course, exceptions. At any rate, the final scene proved devastating in its combination of abstraction and directness, the amplified (electronic?) guillotine notwithstanding. Robert Carsen’s staging, and in this case especially Philippe Giradeau’s movement, exemplary throughout, frame the action simply and without hysteria, as the equally exemplary ensemble thins out one by one – until the appearance of Blanche, to whom Constance reaches out from afar, and then… Yes, the opera veers dangerously close to sentimentality, and perhaps in some places crosses that boundary, but the frisson experienced near that boundary is part, though only part, of what Poulenc is about. Musically, the scene is not quite reducible to the ghost of Œdipus Rex, haunted by an earlier ghost of Gounod; it is, indeed, its own unforgettable self. And the other influences, Puccini, Mussorgsky, and Debussy amongst them, never overpower the ‘dialogues’ of the title, with their roots in a very French understanding of plainsong and religious life. It was not only in the final scene that music, staging, and performance came together very well indeed, but it was perhaps the finest example and of course the climax.

Mme de Croissy (Deborah Polaski) and Blanche (Sally Matthews)

If only Carsen’s understandable interest in the revolutionary crowd did not overpower some of the other scenes, this would be a great staging indeed; as it stands, Carsen’s divided attention seems to run along the lines of much (mis-)understanding of the opera. I do not wish to carp about the role played by the volunteer Community Ensemble, whose direction and performance deeply impressed, and whose achievement, some of its participants having experienced homelessness, prison, and long-term unemployment, can hardly fail to move and to cheer. But Carsen’s presentation tends to suggest that the opera is more ‘about’ the French Revolution than it really is. This is a drama about Divine Grace, a truth at least as often forgotten, or overlooked, as the similar truth about Parsifal, a work with which Poulenc’s opera would otherwise have little or nothing in common. There are moments, nevertheless, when the ensemble works wonders, perhaps above all acting as a human – or inhuman? – dividing line between Blanche and her brother, the Chevalier, when he visits her in the convent. Still, the loss is perhaps a price worth paying for the redemptive involvement and prospects afforded to members of the ensemble, who have also been invited to take part in a careers support programme by the Royal Opera House and its partner organisations (Streetwise Opera, Synergy Theatre Project, the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama).

Mother Marie (Sophie Koch) at the centre
Sir Simon Rattle’s role in proceedings was impressive too – as one might expect from this conductor in French music. Rattle’s leadership of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, generally on very good form itself, refused to sentimentalise, taking the opera faster than some may have wished, but hardly offensively so and quite without the mannerisms that so often disfigure his readings of the ‘central’ Austro-German symphonic repertoire. And the big moments had great punch, the unanimity of orchestral and vocal ensemble alike quite remarkable. Poulenc once remarked that he did not want his music to be analysed but to loved; perhaps a better way to love it, though, is to accord it the dignity of some degree of analytical, as well as dramatic, thought.

Constance (Anna Prohaska) and other Carmelites

Sally Matthews’s performance of the central role was one which improved almost out of recognition as the evening went on. The first scene was troubled by thick vibrato and less than convincing French. It would be vain to contend that Matthews’s French diction or style ever truly convinced, but it became possible to leave to one side one’s doubts, as her dramatic sincerity won one over. Anna Prohaska made a wonderful foil as Constance: vivacious, pure and clean of tone, yet full of fun. In short, she simply ‘lived’ the character, convincing us that this was how she must be; it would be a pity if we were not one day to hear her Blanche. Deborah Polaski’s Old Prioress impressed through sheer strength of personality, even if, again, her French was far from beyond reproach. Her Erwartung did not seem so very far away at the end of the first act. Emma Bell was sensational as her replacement, ringing as true and clear as I have ever heard; indeed, this was the finest performance I have heard from her. Equally distinguished was Sophie Koch’s Mother Marie: a tricky, yet crucial role. Her inner demons and ultimate humanity were powerfully portrayed in a reading of vocal distinction too. Yann Beuron’s Chevalier de la Force made a headstrong and imploring mark, whilst Alan Oke captured better than I had previously encountered the ambivalent role of the Chaplain. Indeed, pretty much every one of the smaller roles was well taken, and the choral singing could hardly be faulted either. This was, then, whatever quibbles one might have had concerning aspects of Carsen’s production and the French diction, an excellent company effort, and should be lauded as such.