Saturday 7 June 2014

Carmelites returns to Covent Garden

The Royal Opera's Les Dialogues des Carmélites © ROH/Stephen Cummiskey, 2014
Carmélites © ROH/Stephen Cummiskey, 2014
Poulenc Carmelites; Royal Opera, Robert Carsen, Simon Rattle; Covent Garden
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 04 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Welcome return of Poulenc's opera to Covent Garden

Poulenc's Les Dialogues des Carmelites made a welcome return to Covent Garden when Robert Carsen's much travelled production made an appearance at the Royal Opera House. We caught the third performance on 4 June 2014, with Sally Matthews as Blanche, Yann Beuron as the Chevalier de la Force, Thomas Allen as the Marquis de la Force, Deborah Polaski as Madame de Croissy, Emma Bell as Madame Lidoine, Anna Prohaska as Soeur Constance, and Sophie Koch as Mere Marie, conducted by Simon Rattle.

Poulenc's opera was last seen at Covent Garden in 1983 when Margarita Wallmann's 1958 production, with its highly realistic sets by George Wakhetich, was revived in English with Felicity Lott as Blanche. Robert Carsen's production was created for Netherlands Opera in 1997 (and in fact I saw the 2002 revival there with the late Susan Chilcott as Blanche).

Carsen's production had a stylish austerity to its look, designed by Michael Levine (sets) and Falk Bauer (costumes) with choreography by Philippe Giraudeau. The set was just grey walls, outlining the whole of the stage. Most scenes had little in tne way of dressing. One of the main visual features was the crowd which streamed across the stage and at the opening loomed over the Chevalier and Marquis. The crowd was played by a mixture of the chorus, actors and the newly formed Covent Garden Community Ensemble.

Within this Carsen articulated the action with spareness, clarity and remarkably little religion. Yes, we had nuns, and yes there was a mass at one point. But in the two previous productions I have seen (at Grange Park Opera and the Theatre des Champs Elysees, the directors had in their different ways emphasised the religious element. Instead Carsen seemed to be more interested in the work's universality. Despite its various revivals, the production seemed to be in very good health.

Sally Matthews as Blanche in Les Dialogues des Carmélites © ROH/Stephen Cummiskey, 2014
Sally Matthews as Blanche © ROH/Stephen Cummiskey, 2014
Sally Matthews made an intensely passionate Blanche. The warmth of her voice (with its distinctive, attractive vibrato) set off Blanche's neurotic behaviour. Believable and very intense, Matthews successfully screwed up the tension so that in the last act Blanche's participation in the guillotining was by no means certain even though we knew the outcome. It is a tribute to Matthews' skill that she elicited sympathy for Blanche even when the character was paralysed with fear. Anna Prohaska as Soeur Constance provided a brilliant foil to Matthews. Her bright clear tones contrasted with Matthews' and Prohaska provided a lovely mixture of sparkiness and religiosity. A complete delight in the comic moments, Prohaska was convincingly intense when talking about transference of grace.

The role of Madame de Croissy, the old prioress, is Marschallin like in that the role has a far bigger impact than its length would imply. It is a gift for a singing actress, and thankfully in Deborah Polaski the Royal Opera found such a one (Polaski sang the role in the recent Vienna incarnation of Carsen's production). Though no longer singing Brunhildes, Polaski's voice remains richly resonant and she made the most of her opportunities. For the death scene, Carsen had the prioress staggering out of bed and the whole scene was simply mesmerising, albeit somewhat far from what might be likely in real life.

Sophie Koch was a severe and uptight Mere Marie, rather forbidding and certainly not approachable. But Koch gave us glimpses of humanity and brought out the character's intensity, ratching this up to fever pitch in the short scene at the end where Mere Marie learns she will not be with the sisters when they are guillotined.

Emma Bell's Madame Lidoine, the new prioress, was surprisingly dramatic, particularly in her opening solo; Bell's predecessors in the role at Covent Garden have included Valerie Masterson and Joan Sutherland. Bell combined confiding warmth with a sense of drama as opposed to the limpid purity some singers bring to the role. But in her final solo in prison, Bell was wonderfully radiant.

The ending of Carsen's production remains as powerfully moving as I remembered it. From the moment the march to the scaffold starts in the orchestra, Poulenc thrillingly increases the tension in the orchestra and Carsen and choreographer Giraudeau match this on stage with great daring.

Yann Beuron's finely involving Chevalier de la Force, showed up the evening's primary weakness, the language. Carmelites is a very conversational opera and Beuron showed exactly how to put over the text in Poulenc's fluid lines. In this he was well supported by Thomas Allen's forbidding Marquis. But most of the other non Francophone singers were far more variable, and you relied heavily on the surtitles.

The smaller roles were well taken with Catherine Carby as Soeur Mathilde and Elizabeth Sikora as Mere Jeanne. Alan Oke was a sympathetic Father Confessor, with Neil Gillespie, John Bernays, David Butt Philip, Michel de Souza, Ashley Riches and Craig Smith.

In the pit, Simon Rattle presided overa flexible and fluid account of the score. He kept the large orchestra in balance with the singers and enabled the music to flow naturally. This was a finely involving and moving account of the work and I hope we do not have to wait 30 years to see it at Covent Garden again.

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