Dialogues of life and death
Queen Elizabeth Hall
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.