Tuesday 6 March 2018

Remarkable dialogues - Poulenc's opera at the Guildhall

Poulenc: Dialogues des Carmélites- Emily Kyte, Michelle Alexander - Guildhall School (Photo Clive Barda)
Poulenc: Dialogues des Carmélites- Emily Kyte, Michelle Alexander - Guildhall School (Photo Clive Barda)
Poulenc Dialogues des Carmélites; Lucy Anderson, Claire Lees, Michelle Alexander, Emily Kyte, Georgia Mae Bishop, dir: Martin Lloyd Evans, cond: Dominic Wheeler; Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 05 2018
A performance of remarkably sustained power which brought out the philosophical intent of Poulenc's opera

Poulenc: Dialogues des Carmélites- Georgia Mae Bishop - Guildhall School (Photo Clive Barda)
Georgia Mae Bishop
Guildhall School (Photo Clive Barda)
With its remarkably large number of roles, and a leading character specifically designed for a lyric voice, it is not surprising that Poulenc's opera Dialogues des Carmélites crops up at music colleges. Having seen the opera performed at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2011 (with Natalyia Romaniw as Blanche, see my article),  it was a welcome treat to return for a new production, and we caught the final performance on 5 March 2018.

Directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans and conducted by Dominic Wheeler with designs by takis, the production featured Lucy Anderson as Blanche, Claire Lees as Soeur Constance, Michelle Alexander as Madame Lidoine, the Young Prioress, Emily Kyte as Mère Marie and Georgia Mae Bishop as Madame de Croissy, the Old Prioress.

The challenge, for a student performance of Dialogues des Carmelites, is to create the sense of sustained intensity over a long period faced with such an austere subject. And Poulenc's writing is not without its challenges, there were moments during the production when the richness of the orchestration threatened to overwhelm the young voices, particularly the men, and the style of continuous recitative difficult to bring off. Whilst the singers' French diction was creditable, not everyone managed to bring out the musical colours in the language and some passages felt a bit flat. It does not help that many of the myriad roles are quite small, and not everyone managed to create a sense of real character. But the real achievement of this production was a sense of sustained drama, keeping us fully involved in the philosophical and narrative thread.

The singers were thrown into particular relief as Lloyd-Evans and takis had chosen a very abstract style of presentation.
The sets were a series of movable panels, which rather evoked a stylish car-park (perhaps evoking the Barbican one adjacent to the theatre), and within this Lloyd-Evans minimised the sense of ritual. Other productions I have seen, notably Olivier Py's at the Theatre des Champs Elysees [see my article] and Stephen Barlow's production at Grange Park Opera [see my article] have, in their different ways, folded the eternal ritual of the nuns into the action, but we had little sense of that and little feel that the series of disconnected scenes build into a via crucis.

Poulenc: Dialogues des Carmélites- Eduard Mas Bacardit, Lucy Anderson- Guildhall School (Photo Clive Barda)
Eduard Mas Bacardit, Lucy Anderson
Guildhall School (Photo Clive Barda)
What this meant was that we had to pay attention to what was being said, and this production really was a series of dialogues. And if Lloyd-Evans lowered the religious temperature in one way, what he did do was enable the singers to bring out Poulenc's underlying theme of transference, that  Madame de Croissy suffers a 'bad death' so that Blanche can have a 'good death'.

Lucy Anderson started out visibly cowed at Blanche, yet her demeanour was not quite matched by her voice which developed a significant vibrato. This was far less noticeable once Blanche entered the convent, and from that moment Anderson's performance was one of remarkable and sustained power. A fragile, anxious character, she was a rather sharper Blanche than some, yet her Act Two scene with her brother (Eduard Mas Bacardit) saw Anderson and Mas Bacardit developing a gripping tension. And Anderson brought the climactic final scene to a poised close.

Claire Lees' Constance made a delightful foil for Anderson's Blanche, Lees was a charming chatterbox yet conveyed quite clearly the real ideas of the opera with Constance's vision of her and Blanche's death. Mère Marie is perhaps the most complex character in the opera, and Emily Kyte really brought out the way Marie was full of strong ideas, often insufficiently suppressed in the face of her need for obedience. Kyte gave us an intense and nervy performance, one full of unsatisfied need.

The role of the Old Prioress is a gift to an older singer (I have seen memorable performances from singers such as Regine Crespin and Rosalind Plowright), yet it presents a challenge to a young singer. Georgia Mae Bishop rose admirably to the challenge bringing a vibrant dramatic intensity to the death scene along with an immense physicality. Michelle Alexander brought a lovely sense of calmness and tranquillity to the role of the young prioress, yet you sensed that the role lay a little uneasily for her and her final scene had an unwelcome feeling of tension in the voice.

As Blanche's brother and father, Eduard Mas Bacardit and Jake Muffett articulated their roles admirably. Their first scene together looked and sounded good, yet the two could not quite make the drama take wing and the scene sagged somewhat; it definitely lacked the tension which Mas Bacardit brought to his Act Two scene with Anderson. Daniel Mullaney as the chaplain displayed a lovely lyric voice but did not quite imbue the role with the urgent intensity it needed.

The final scene was staged simply yet very effectively and it was nice to hear the guillotine sound simply as part of the orchestral texture, rather than over-dominating as in some productions.

We got the tiny spoken-dialogue scene in Act Three, which is important to the narrative sense but is so often cut from productions.
Lloyd Evans made quite a strong use of the chorus, yet these scenes rather lacked the visceral thrill which should come at these moments. If we are going to see the rabble, then they really have to shock us. In the pit, the orchestra gave us some strongly sonorous moments and brought real power to Poulenc's score. There was the odd hesitant moment, yet overall this was a striking account of an orchestral score whose importance cannot be overstated.

This was a performance which transcended any limitations, bringing out the themes of Poulenc's drama and ultimately creating a drama of remarkably sustained power.

Poulenc Dialogues des Carmélites
Blanche - Lucy Anderson
Le Chevalier / 1er Commissaire - Eduard Mas Bacardit
L'Aumonier - Daine Mullaney
Le Marquis - Jake Muffett
1er Officier - Michael Vickers
Madame de Croissy, the Old Prioress - Georgia Mae Bishop
Soeur Constance - Claire Lees
Mere Marie - Emily Kyte
Madame Lidoine, the New Prioress - Michelle Alexander
Soeur Mathilde - Lucy McAuley
2ieme Commissaire/Thierry/M. Javelinot/Le Geolier - Bertie Watson
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  • Contrasting double: Puccini's Il tabarro & Gianni Schicchi from ETO (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Beyond an auspicious debut: I chat to French Horn player Ben Goldscheider - interview
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  • The complete piano works of John McCabe - volume 1 (★★★½) - CD review
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  • Well worth crossing the Red Sea for: Rossini's Mosè in Egitto from Chelsea Opera Group (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Music, myth and time: Karen Cargill and the Scottish Ensemble at Kings Place (★★★★½) - concert review
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  • Má vlast: Jiri Belohlavek's last recording with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra - CD review (★★★★)
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  • 18 years after its premiere, Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking receives its first UK performance - Opera review (★★★½)
  • Gerstein plays Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto in F - CD review (★★★★)
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