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Singing — and dying — nuns

13 June 2014

Richard Lawrence on Poulenc's Carmelites

© roh/stephen cummiskey

Superb cast: Sally Matthews as Blanche de la Force in the latest production of Francis Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites at Covent Garden

Superb cast: Sally Matthews as Blanche de la Force in the latest production of Francis Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites at Covent Garden

PARIS has much to offer the tourist who likes to visit the last resting-places of the famous: the Père-Lachaise for Balzac, Proust, Wilde, and Jim Morrison; Montparnasse for Beckett and Sartre; Montmartre for Berlioz and Offenbach. These cemeteries are well-known. But few visit the Cimetière de Picpus, a five-minute walk from the Nation métro station. This is where 1306 victims of the Terror are buried, their names recorded in the chapel; and, at the far end of the garden, near the grave of Lafayette, is a plaque listing the names of 16 Carmelite nuns who were guillotined on 17 July 1794. It is their fate that is the subject of Francis Poulenc's opera Dialogues des Carmélites, first performed at La Scala, Milan - in an Italian translation - in 1957.

Actually, it is about more than the nuns' fate. The libretto is derived from a play by Georges Bernanos, which in turn was based on a short story by a German writer, Gertrud von Le Fort. Bernanos was a devout Roman Catholic - educated by the Jesuits, he nearly became a priest himself - and he was preoccupied with "the transference of grace". In a key passage, the young Sister Constance says: "We do not die for ourselves but for one another, or even instead of each other. Who knows?" Thus, the Prioress dies in physical and spiritual agony, while Blanche - who has run away - finds the courage to join her sisters on the scaffold.

Robert Carsen's production at Covent Garden was first seen in Amsterdam in 1997; it has since toured to other cities, including Milan, Vienna, and Madrid. The set designs are by Michael Levine, but there is no scenery, only furniture and props, with traditional costumes by Falk Bauer. What grips the attention, non-musically speaking, are the kaleidoscopic placing of the characters, the movement (credited to the choreographer Philippe Giraudeau), and the imaginative lighting by Jean Kalman. Blanche's interview with the Prioress is witnessed by the nuns kneeling, facing the audience; lined up, they form a barrier when Blanche is visited by her brother; in prison, they huddle together. When they hear of the death sentence, they raise their eyes to heaven; at the end, singing the Salve Regina, one by one they sink slowly to the ground as (invisible, but very loud) the guillotine descends. The Royal Opera's newly founded Community Ensemble provides silent, motionless witnesses.

The cast is superb. Deborah Polaski makes a dignified Prioress. Emma Bell is equally authoritative as her successor, though she could have shown more steel when rebuking Sophie Koch's Mother Marie. Anna Prohaska chirrups delightfully as Sister Constance, wide-eyed and wise at the same time; Poulenc makes it virtually impossible for any producer toshow that it is not she but Blanche who votes against martyrdom.Sally Matthews catches all the aspects of Blanche's behaviour: her resolve, her impatience, her fear. The men don't get much of a look-in, but Thomas Allen, Yann Beuron, and Alan Oke all make a strong impression; a special word forCraig Smith's jailer, who fires off the list of the condemned without making it sound like Rossinian patter.

In the pit, Sir Simon Rattle and the orchestra are wonderfully rapturous, stately, and violent by turns. The short run of performances is already over, but the production's Milan incarnation - different conductor and cast - can be seen on DVD.


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