The Royal Opera’s run of Dialogues des Carmélites came to a close last Thursday: I had seen the previous Saturday (5th) and the opening night. They were performances of remarkable power.
After the opening night, I had wanted to wait until I saw the later outing to capture my thoughts on the performances. However, even then I was at something of a loss as to reflect on their potency. After a rather ‘wordy’ – though fascinating – body to the opera, the measured tread and more expansive lyricism of the nuns’ closing Salve Regina renders it extraordinarily powerful.
In this Robert Carsen production, beautifully austere in cool greys for the most part, everything that moves does so with a assured grace and purpose. The introduction of the augmented crowd by lifting the rear and side walls serves well to establish with forceful effect the sense of invasion of the convent’s sacred safety. The incarceration of the nuns in a prison formed of a square of light in an otherwise dark expanse of stage is also a remarkable visual effect. Earlier, there is a wonderful lack of clutter for the scene in which Madame de Croissy dies in the throes of a crisis of faith. Small theatrical interventions are well-judged, notably when the sisters are praying at the corpse of the Prioress in the next scene, covered by a sheet, and pull it back to reveal that the outline of the body is made up of flowers. The closing sequence, a slow balletic dance in which each character falls slowly at the sound of the falling guillotine, emphasises the lyricism I referred to earlier, letting the rhythmic tread (and the thud of the guillotine) do its own work.
On a stage of relative spareness, there is a renewed focus on the performances, all of which repaid the attention. As Madame de Croissy, Deborah Polaski was a welcome return, and she depicted the old woman’s crisis with intensity and a fearless attack. Sally Matthews was a convincing and warm-toned Blanche, conveying well the young woman’s all-consuming fears. Anna Prohaska’s bright and forthright Sister Constance was a well-matched foil for Blanche’s seriousness. Both Sophie Koch as Mother Marie and Emma Bell as Madame Lidoine made fantastic impressions, particularly vocally, with both clean, powerful tone and expert shading. Yann Beuron was impressively clarion on the second outing, although indisposed on the first night (though he sang the opening scene, later withdrawing in favour of an also-impressive Luis Gomes).
I thought that between the two performances Rattle’s interpretation grew in intensity: a more incisive and biting sound had emerged, not that the opening night wasn’t dramatic. The orchestra brought a wonderful poise and control to the score. With the massed forces on stage, augmented by the Community Ensemble brought into the work by the Opera House’s Learning & Participation Team, it all came together as an outstanding evening of deeply involving theatre.