Tuesday 17 December 2013

Poulenc's Carmelites at the Theatre des Champs Elysees

Rosalind Plowright as Madame de Croissy in Dialogues des Carmelites at the Theatre des Champs Elysee © Vincent PONTET / Wikispectacle
Rosalind Plowright as
Madame de Croissy in Poulenc's
Carmelites at Theatre des Champs Elysees
© Vincent Pontet/ Wikispectacle 
Olivier Py's new production of Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites at the Theatre des Champs Elysees in Paris was firmly focussed on the nuns themselves. Quite rightly so, given that the cast included some of the strongest female Franco-phone singers around today. We caught the third performance, on Sunday 15 December 2014, with a cast including Patricia Petibon as Blanche, Sabine Devieilhe as Soeur Constance (replacing Sandrine Piau who was ill), Veronique Gens as Madame Lidoine (the Young Prioress), Sophie Koch as Mere Marie, Rosalind Plowright as Madame de Croissy (the Old Prioress) with Topi Lehtipuu as the Chevalier de la Force and Philippe Rouillon as the Marquis de la Force. Jeremie Rhorer conducted, with the Philharmonia Orchestra in the pit. Pierre-Andrew Weitz designed the sets and costumes

The set consisted of a dark wooden box with a false perspective. Screens could cut off the box at various points and the rear opened to reveal a landscape of bare trees. Trees, huge bare and black, formed the centrepiece of one of the screens which could slide into place. The production never passed out of the convent or the prison. The chorus (la foule) were always off-stage and the functionaries of the revolution (Jeremy Duffau, Yuri Kissin and Mathieu Lecroart) did many of their scenes from the auditorium. The scene between Mere Marie (Sophie Koch) and the Father Confessor (Francois Piolino) took place in the auditorium and Koch's Mere Marie watched the final action from there, unable to participate.

The setting was roughly 1930, costumes had a timeless elegance but with enough hints of period (for example the shortness of Blanche's skirt, the style of Mere Marie's hat in the final scenes and the military cut of the revolutionaries' greatcoats). The nuns habits were simple, but very elegantly cut.

Whereas many productions in the UK choose to emphasise the French revolutionary period, Py and Weitz preferred to bring out the universality of the story.

The nuns' life was clearly austere, but intensely felt. Py used Poulenc's orchestral interludes to have the nuns re-enacting religious tableaux, including most importantly the last supper and the crucifixion. Unlike some productions, we saw no specifically religious ritual. Instead Py and Weitz concentrated on the nuns' interior life; the sense of an austerely inward spirituality and the rather awkward notion of the transference of grace which is central to the opera.

DIALOGUES DES CARMÉLITES Patricia Petibon (Blanche de La Force) © Vincent PONTET / Wikispectacle
Patricia Petibon
© Vincent Pontet/ Wikispectacle 

The role of Blanche is one of those awkward ones which, though a lyric role, requires a voice of some power. That combination of power, focus and flexibility which occurs so rarely in modern voices. This leads the role to be sometimes under powered. Patricia Petibon, combined all the role's ideal qualities, a fragility of demeanour, a voice which was lyrically flexible and intense but also finely focussed and capable of riding the orchestra. Her Blanche was a very nervous, highly physical young woman. Blanche's anxieties were always physically manifested. But Petibon combined this with a vocalism which was highly appealing, giving a nice suppleness to the vocal line. This was a powerfully intense performance, balancing fragility with toughness.

Sabine Devieilhe betrayed no sign of being a last minute replacement as Soeur Constance and combined the role's lighter side (including blowing soap bubbles) with a nice seriousness of intention. After all, it is Constance who first raises the idea of transference of grace with the image of Madame de Croissy's receiving the wrong death like getting the wrong coat in the cloakroom. Devieilhe brought out the seriousness underlying Constance's thoughts.

Sophie Koch was a strong Mere Marie. Younger than some in the role, she combined a seriousness of purpose with a strong inner life and great dignity, a sense of inner silence and a tendency to bridle when the Rule was contravened. She was the intense, quiet central heart of the drama and we felt for her strongly when she was excluded from the final drama.

Veronique Gens was Madame Lidoine, the Young Prioress, though in this case it was clearly a relative term. Vens was dignified and mature, but fill of anxiety to do right. Hers wasn't a showy performance of the role, instead she conveyed a strong inner dignity and seriousness of purpose. All of these singers are Francophone which gave Poulenc's very dialogue based opera a wonderfully idiomatic feel. The music is so aligned to the rhythm of the text, the whole opera being a continuous arc of recitative, and in the performance it flowed naturally with a nice intensity of purpose.

Where the Grange Park Opera production of Poulenc's opera (given this summer, see my review) had a radiance and sense of the constant daily round of ritual, Py's production developed a feeling of interior intensity, of the layers that lay below. He and his cast gave a real feeling that these women had a strong inner life and all radiated conviction.

It is common to cast Madame de Croissy (the Old Prioress) with a singer at the end of her vocal life, so it was a great pleasure to encounter Rosalind Plowright in the role. Her voice gloriously encompassed all that the drama required of it. The role isn't huge, she dies at the end of act one, but Poulenc gives the death scene so much drama that is is a gift to a singing actress like Plowright (also afforded the complement of being the only major non Francophone singer in the cast).

She was fearsomely intense and clearly ill during her earlier scenes. Then in the final scene of act one, Py gave us a coup de theatre, both brilliant and unexpected. The Old Prioress's bed was suspended vertically so that we were looking down on Rosalind Plowright lying prone in the bed though in reality Plowright was standing upright. I was fortunate to be able to talk to Plowright about her performance afterwards and gather that this staging not only helped the drama but must have helped projection and support of the voice. Usually the death scene is staged by having the singer lying down, but repeatedly heaving herself forward or perhaps propped up dramatically. Instead, Plowright was able to seem realistically lying prone, but able to communicate vividly with the audience. It could have been simply a stunt, but instead Plowright used it to deliver a stunningly detailed and very fearsome death scene.

Moving the action to the 20th century enabled Py to make Topi Lehtipuu as the Chevalier de la Force have a far more physical relationship with his sister. In act one Lehtipuu and Petibon were playful. But in act two when he comes to try to take his sister from the convent, this physicality became profoundly intense. Lehtipuu and Petibon made this scene vibrate with pain and passion, displayed in its sheer physicality.

Philippe Rouillon as the Marquis de la Force had a stiffness of rectitude which seemed entirely commensurate with the character.

Francois Piolino made a notable Father Confessor, delivering a pognant farewell speech to the nuns after his last mass. Jeremy Duffau and Yuri Kissin were the officers of the revolution and Nathieu le Croart doubled as the servant Thierry, the doctor and the jailor. All three singers created nicely vivid cameos.

As the third act drew to a close, there was no local colour; the drama stayed centred on the nuns and their plight. Throughout, Py's personenregie was superb and he created a vital sense of community with the nuns. For the final scene, the rear wall opened up to reveal a dark night sky with shining stars. The nuns, all in white shifts, stood in an arc and as the guillotine came down in the orchestra, each nun in turn stopped singing and walked to the rear of the stage, disappearing into the heavens. The final image of the opera was of Patricia Petibon's Blanche walking slowing away from us towards the infinite night sky.

The nuns are more than just a chorus and the singers at the Theatre des Champs Elysees not only sang finely but created a real sense of community.

Jeremie Rhorer in the pit had a strong feel for the fascinating sonorities of Poulenc's score, bringing out the richly expressive orchestration and keeping the tempos flowing. It helped that he had the Philharmonia Orchestra in the pit, bringing power and sophistication to the score and giving the great moments a superb sweep. The performance started 20 minutes late, owing to the transport problems of one of the orchestral players, but ultimately this did not detract from the performance.

I have seen a number of striking productions of this opera, ranging from Felicity Lott, Regine Crespin and Valerie Masterson at Covent Garden in the early 1980's, through Susan Chilcott at Netherlands Opera in the late 1990's to this year's Grange Park Opera production. But this new production at the Theatre des Champs Elysees must go down as one of the most remarkable.

This was an intense and coherent performance, one that was ultimately profoundly moving. A group of remarkable singing actors came together in a performance which was thoughtful and intense. Many of the performances were selfless, contributing finely to the greater whole.

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