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Dialogues of life and death

Queen Elizabeth Hall
05/20/1999 -  
Francis Poulenc : Dialogues des Carmélites
Alan Opie (Marquis de la Force), Joan Rodgers (Blanche), Neill Archer (Chevalier de la Force), Elizabeth Vaughan (Old Prioress), Josephine Barstow (Mother Marie), Rita Cullis (New Prioress), Susan Gritton (Sister Constance), Ryland Davies (Chaplain), Ivan Sharpe (First commissioner), Anthony Cunningham (Second commissioner), David Kempster (Officer), Christopher Booth-Jones (Gaoler), Gary Coward (Thierry), Roger Begley (Doctor)
Paul Daniel (conductor), Phyllida Lloyd (director)

The programme for this new production of Dialogues of the Carmelites at the ENO lists all of the nuns by name. It's entirely right to give full credit to everyone involved in this understated but sublime ensemble production.

Phyllida Law focusses on the personal fear and grace of the characters. She works with a fine cast of singing actors to bring out the family instability of the de la Forces, Constance's exuberant love of life, the old prioress' fear of death after a life of authority, and the new prioress' patrician practicality. Each of the nuns goes to her death as a distinct individual. Blanche's decision to go to the guillotine at the end is staged as a happy reunion with Constance.

But the production ends with Mother Marie, alone, surviving to be a witness and reporter, when she wanted to be a martyr. Her survival is formally essential, as someone has to provide evidence of what happened in the convent (there was a historical Mother Marie whose narrative is the basis of later treatments of this story).It also reminds us that those who bear witness to atrocities have a vital, if painful, role to play.

The opera's origins as a film script are highlighted --  the production has some striking echoes of the film Thérèse about St Thérèse of Lisieux --  but the music adds an emotional force that suggests the terrifying violence of the revolution while allowing a close focus on the individual characters. The set enforces this effect. It consists of a simple set of grey walls which form a screen before which the nuns project themselves. The convent furniture consists of one very elegant arts-and-crafts style high backed chair for each nun. These form prison-like grills, and one of them casts a shadow that looks like the guillotine as the Chevalier arrives to tell Blanche of the revolution.  The de la Force home has only a grand armchair and a huge violent painting, ripped after the Marquis' death.

The cast, consisting of ENO house singers and regular guests, gave awesome performances. Elizabeth Vaughan was perfectly cast as the old prioress, fiercely loving, then progressing through senile tantrums to an angry despair. She made heartbreaking use of the powerful wreckage of a voice. Sara Maitland in the programme asks why she admitted Blanche, an insubstantial wreck intially, to the order. Unfortunately, Joan Rodgers' Blanche began as a silly neurotic rather than a young woman overwhelmed by the horror of the world, though she achieved a kind of sexless operatic grandeur in the final scenes.

Josephine Barstow, perhaps the only singer more distinguished than Vaughan in this kind of role, and in better vocal shape, was ruthlessly heroic as Mother Marie. Rita Cullis as the new prioress looked and sounded like a religious earth mother, with a rich, but not sensual, tone. Susan Gritton's singing as Constance was superb, and she got her spiritual simplicity perfectly -- a jolly nun with vision.

The men's roles are fairly thankless, but were also throughly thought through and well performed. Neill Archer was sympathetic, and plausibly Blanche's fragile blond brother. Alan Opie as the Marquis was similarly unstable. Ivan Sharpe was striking, with a sinisterly beautiful voice, as the first commissioner.

The audience's reaction tonight was subdued, but this was entirely right. The production, and Paul Daniel's direction of the ENO orchestra, emphasised the brave melancholy of the nuns in the face of death rather than the grand sweep of events. The effect was extremely moving, but not cathartic in the way opera is often expected to be. There was a brief, slightly embarassing burst of applause at the end of the old prioress' death scene -- a tour-de-force -- but the main applause came as the orchestra returned for the second act. Carmelites is an opera that sends you out of the theatre weeping gently, and thinking a lot.

H.E. Elsom



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