Wednesday 12 June 2013

Poulenc's Carmelites at Grange Park Opera.

Francis Poulenc with the first Blanche in Carmelites
Francis Poulenc the first Blanche in  Carmelites
Francis Poulenc's Carmelites is a remarkable opera. A long work from a composer renowned for his smaller scale pieces, an intensely serious piece from a man whose previous opera was a surrealist farce, and a tonal work written at a time when atonality was becoming the dominant force in contemporary music. It is not an opera that you expect to encounter at country house opera, but then Grange Park Opera is never typical with its repertoire choices. We attended the opening night of John Doyle's production, on 12 June 2013, and I have to declare a little bit of interest in the event as we made a small contribution to the support of the production.

John Doyle and designer Liz Ashcroft's production highlighted the meditative calm of the cloister, the ritual of a religious life and the sheer strength which appertains to it. Ashcroft's set consisted of a single trapezoidal room with a single slot for an entrance. Colours were all muted creams and taupes, including the nuns' habits.  Paul Keogan's lighting captured the amazing beauty of the set, and brought out a myriad of colours. It was here that the entire opera took place, in this enclosed world.

The props consisted of little more than three chairs, two sheets, a plank, four candlesticks and a crucifix, and everything was made from these, including the Old Prioress's bed and the altar. The nuns themselves set and re-set the stage, in a calm and almost ritual way, emphasising the contemplative continuity of the cloister. The staging was similarly direct and almost Brechtian, with the  Anne-Marie Owens' Old Prioress just walking off at the end of her death scene and many cast members sitting waiting at the side of the room for their entrance.

The directness of the staging and the calm of the cloister meant that any divergence from routine, such as the eruption of the revolutionaries or the death of the Old Prioress, had an almost supercharged effect. The end result was focussed and rather mesmerising. Perhaps because the smallness of the Grange Park stage meant there was no pressure on Doyle to fill the staging with distracting detail, the production had a powerful feeling of the cloister. It felt as if we were overlooking a real ritual rather than a director filling out the action with fussy bits and pieces. This applied from the very beginning, when the scene between the Marquis de la Force (Matthew Stiff) and the Chevalier de la Force (Nicky Spence) was very spare and very formal.

Hye-Youn Lee made a very intense Blanche. This is one of those roles (the Cunning Little Vixen is another) which require a flexible lyric voice but one possessed of a degree of power as well to rise over the rich orchestration. Lee had an element of steel in her voice which meant she could ride the orchestra, but also brought a flexibility and a touching intensity to the part. She might have been intense, but she was not neurotic and there was also a profound dignity to her.

Soraya Mafi was the perfect foil as Soeur Constance, with a bright toned voice and a lovely, charming manner. In complete contrast, Sara Fulgoni's Mere Marie was tall and intense with a serious dignity and profound depth of feeling. Despite her dignity, Fulgoni always the idea that a great deal more was going on underneath. With her richly toned and highly expressive voice, Fulgoni was vivid across the whole range of Mere Marie's part.

Anne-Marie Owens as the Old Prioress had, of course, the most dramatic scene in the opera with her appalling death. Owens was vivid in the Old Prioress's death throes as she lost her faith, making it all the more striking because of the contrast with Owens' severe and dignified demeanour earlier in the opera.

Fiona Murphy was Madame Lidoine, the new Prioress, singing with great vividness and a striking vibrancy of tone. I did feel, however, that visually she did rather blend into the other nuns and that she should have been given some small differentiating mark in her dress. The other small roles were strongly taken with Kathleen Wilkinson as Mere Jeanne and Olivia Ray as Soeur Mathilde.

Nicky Spence showed a nice lyric freedom in his performance, the flexibility which he brought to the role belied its high tessitura. Not for the first time with this opera, I wished that Poulenc had found more for the Chevalier de la Force to do. Matthew Stiff was suitably stiff and forbidding as his father. Nigel Robson made a very strong impression as the chaplain of the convent. Joe Morgan was the 1st Commissary, Johnny Herford an officer, Christopher Cull was the jailer and Monsieur Javelinot, Bragi Jónsson was Thierry and the 2nd Commissary.

One striking aspect of the production was that the above named soloists were the only revolutionaries that we saw. We heard the crowd, but never saw them, the action (apart from the opening scene) took place entirely in the convent or the nuns' cell. And for the amazing final scene, where each walks to their death, they walked into the light streaming through slot which was the only entrance.

Of course the opera isn't really about individual solo roles, it is about the interaction between the characters. Here the cast were admirable in the way that they built the drama from the small motifs of Poulenc's recitatives. Another significant contributory factor was the orchestra. Poulenc used it to punctuate and comment on the action, to bring a richness to the plainness of the vocal lines. And here conductor Stephen Barlow brought out the best in the English Chamber Orchestra in the pit. Barlow had a good grasp of the piece's overall arching structure, so that we never felt we were getting bogged down in detail. But there was still a lot of detail to enjoy, with some fine solo orchestral moments and a rich depth to the orchestration.

Poulenc's opera has a spiritual and theological point to it. Such things are not always comfortable on the modern stage and one of the strengths of Doyle's production was that it sought to illuminate this and not to confuse the issue with side excessive drama or colourful local details.

This was real grown-up opera for grown-ups, with Doyle's thoughtful and beautiful production taking Carmelites seriously, not attempting to score points but to bring out the innate beauty of the piece. The ensemble of strong soloists, aided by Barlow and the English Chamber Orchestra in strong form, created a richly expressive and profoundly moving performance.

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