United Kingdom Poulenc, Dialogues des Carmélites: Soloists, RNCM Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Andrew Greenwood (conductor). Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 8.12.2019. (MC)
Stage director – Orpha Phelan
Set and costume designer – Anna Bonomelli
Lighting designer – Matt Haskins
Le Marquis de la Force – Ross Cumming
Le Chevalier de la Force – Andrew Terrafranca
Blanche de la Force – Yuliya Shkvarko
Thierry, Second Commissary – Alex Robarts
Madame de Croissy (Prioress) – Molly Barker
Sister Constance – Pasquale Orchard
Mother Marie – Georgia Ellis
Monsieur Javelinot (Doctor), an Officer – Emyr Jones
Madame Lidoine (Second Prioress) – Mariya Sevdanska
Chaplain – Philip O’Connor
Sister Mathilde – Alicia Cadwgan
Carmelites – Rachel Routledge, Penelope Smallwood, Kendal Bradshaw, Martina Starr-Lassen, Eleanor McKenna, Helene Mathieson, Lowri Probert, Erin Williams, Rebecca Anderson, Naomi Rogers, Phoebe Rayner
First Commissary – Gabriel Seawright
Mother Jeanne – Kate Aitchison
Jailer – William Kyle
Those that follow the RNCM opera productions are certainly given a variety of operas and operettas to enjoy and recent offerings: notably Così fan tutte, Street Scene, La Vie parisienne, Theodora, Hansel and Gretel, Cendrillon and The Pilgrim’s Progress live in my memory. This outstanding mix of rare and mainstream was continued by this production of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites a powerful twentieth-century tragedy that is becoming increasingly well known. This RNCM production was sung in French with English surtitles and seven of the principal roles were double cast.
The opera centres on young Blanche de la Force, searching for peace and the spirituality of cloistered life in a Carmelite convent, who cannot escape the bloody violence of the Revolution taking place. With such drama set against the backdrop of the French Revolution stage director Orpha Phelan and set and costume designer Anna Bonomelli were skilled in bringing forward the action to modern times fashioning the drama with extremely memorable sets, lighting and smart stage effects. Bonomelli’s set centered on the Carmelite convent at Compiègne and thankfully there was not too much emphasis on complicated symbolism. The two-level construction focusing on a prayer room on the ground level with a second room with a large cross (surely a crucifix would have been more appropriate) directly above accessed by a wide flight of stairs with a tree at the side of the building. The furniture was simple, even the coffin was in clear plastic, therefore not obscuring the space. Later trashed by rioters, the two rooms were painted with large slogans Dieu Est Mort (God Is Dead) and Menteurs (Liars). More than once I winced at the lack of a safety rail to the upstairs room. The contemporary dress worked well the Riot Police in their black tactical clothing and shields especially effective. Throughout, Matt Haskins’s lighting made a spectacular impact. My only grumble was how the affecting final scene surely lost some impact by not including some visual image of a guillotine, instead of just the sound of it doing its murderous job against a blood-red background.
The student cast was certainly up to the challenges of Poulenc’s score with the relationship between the nuns built to a convincing level of intensity. An emotionally complex character, Blanche was portrayed well by Yuliya Shkvarko who improved steadily revealing her bright soprano producing a notable level of intensity. Mezzo-soprano Molly Barker created impressive drama as the ailing Prioress notable for her smooth, expressive voice. Standing out in the part of Blanche’s fellow novice the rather immature Sister Constance was soprano Pasquale Orchard. Such a good actress Orchard’s performance was a joy, singing with a focused and clear tone, exhibiting her talent for communicating dramatic expression. Georgia Ellis a mezzo-soprano sang producing strong emotion and acted most effectively as Mother Marie. As Madame Lidoine the new Prioress, soprano Mariya Sevdanska displayed her firm, attractive voice although at times I wanted additional expression.
Standing out in the male roles Ross Cumming as the Le Marquis de la Force displayed a baritone that was pleasingly clear with an attractive tone. Tenor Andrew Terrafranca as Le Chevalier de la Force had stage presence with reasonable clarity to his voice although I wanted improved focus. The chaplain played by Philip O’Connor, an attractive and effective tenor, was rather drowned out by the orchestra at full volume. In the small parts of Monsieur Javelinot (Doctor) and Police Officer, baritone Emyr Jones excelled acting and singing extremely well and I look forward to seeing him in more significant roles.
Under the training of chorus master Kevin Thraves, I could not fault the RNCM Opera Chorus who provided top-drawer singing from start to finish. The RNCM Opera Orchestra conducted by Andrew Greenwood revelled in Poulenc’s colourful and often beautiful score although the performance had some moments of unsteadiness and for my taste the volume was frequently too loud.
Stage director Orpha Phelan and her design team have inspired a compelling performance of great energy and spirit with no shortage of talent on display.
In March 2020 Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park (a chamber opera premièred in 2011) is the next RNCM offering. For more information about the RNCM click here.