Much to Admire in the Guildhall’s Dialogues des Carmélites

11/03/2018

Poulenc, Dialogues des Carmélites: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama / Dominic Wheeler (conductor). Silk Street Theatre, London, 5.3.2018. (MB)

Cast:

Chevalier de la Force, First Commissary – Eduard Mas Bacardit
Marquis de la Force – Jake Muffett
Blanche de la Force – Lucy Anderson
Thierry, Second Commissary, M. Javelinot, Gaoler – Bertie Watson
Prioress, Mother Jeanne – Georgia Mae Bishop
Sister Constance – Claire Lees
Mother Marie – Emily Kyte
Second Prioress – Michelle Alexander
Carmelites – Eva Gheorghiu, Myramae Meneses, Victoria Li, Alice Girle, Siân Dicker, Ana Marafona, Isabelle Peters, Catherine White, Meriel Cunningham, Natalie Davies, Anne Reilly
Sister Mathilde – Lucy McAuley
Chaplain – Daniel Mullaney

Production:

Martin Lloyd-Evans (director)
takis (designs)
Robbie Butler (lighting)

The Guildhall’s termly opera offerings have long tended to be more adventurous than those of the Royal Academy or Royal College when it comes to repertoire. In June, we shall have the mouthwatering prospect of a double-bill of Hindemith’s last opera, The Long Christmas Dinner, and Lennox Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement. Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is probably as mainstream as I have heard here, with the exception of a fine Marriage of Figaro in 2013. I am not sure that the performance I heard marked the school’s greatest achievement, but there was nevertheless much to admire – and yes, the final scene did what it must when the nuns came before the guillotine, bringing tears to my eyes and a sense of redemption through grace.

The first act in particular seemed somewhat unsettled, the gentle – often deceptively so – flow of Poulenc’s orchestral writing often seeming to elude conductor Dominic Wheeler, and the cast seeming to have been encouraged to perform in a fashion more suited to Italian verismo. French opera more often than not presents a difficulty: not just in the language but in the style too. Perhaps the brashness of the orchestral sound and some decidedly odd balances were as much a matter of the difficult Silk Street acoustic as of anything else. Stravinsky came to mind, quite rightly, but it did not always seem quite the right Stravinsky, and he certainly would have required greater precision too. Fortunately, matters improved considerably in the second and still more the third acts: much better than the other way around! And it was good to have the opportunity to see and to hear the opera in its proper three acts, rather than, as is often the case, having a break part way through the second.

Martin Lloyd-Evans’s production worked well enough, although the balance or perhaps even opposition between naturalism and something more minimalistic, even symbolic, sometimes seemed arbitrary rather than productive. I have nothing against the opera being set when it ‘should’ be, but the danger then can be that it then comes to seem to be ‘about’ the French Revolution, which it really is not. There were some beautiful costumes from takis to look at. More to the point, his relatively sparse set designs achieved a good deal by suggestion – as well as possessing an aesthetic appeal of their own. A Carmelite convent is surely not in any case intended to be lavish. The true theme of the opera, Divine Grace, shone through just enough, if perhaps less consistently than it might have done.

The young cast had much to recommend it. Perhaps rather oddly, given their distinctly lesser roles, the men often stood out as much as the women, Daniel Mullaney’s Chaplain and Eduard Mas Bacardi’s Chevalier and First Commissary both offering finely sung, dramatically considered performances. Perhaps the starring role on this occasion was that of Emily Kyte’s Mother Marie. We were reminded more than once, as much through acting as through vocal means, that not only does the opera have its roots in her telling of the story, but of her especially problematical role in the narrative. Lucy Anderson’s Blanche proved a little vocally wayward to start with, but once settled, proved well able to engage our sympathies. A nicely contrasted, yet strangely complementary, pair of prioresses, Old and New, came our way from Georgia Mae Bishop and Michelle Alexander. Choral scenes were well directed, scenically and musically, offering the necessary sense of a threatening and, yes, revolutionary backdrop.

Mark Berry

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