Harrowing new production of the Dialogues of the Carmelites at Zurich Opera

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Poulenc, Dialogues of the Carmelites: Soloists, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich / Tito Ceccherini (conductor). Zurich Opera, Zurich, 13.2.2022. (JR)

Olga Kulchynska (Blanche) and Sandra Hamaoui (Sister Constance) (c) Hedwig Prammer

Director – Jetske Mijnssen
Stage design – Ben Baur
Costume designer – Gideon Davey
Lighting – Franck Evin
Assistant choreographer – Lillian Stillwell
Chorus master– Janko Kastelic
Dramaturgy – Kathrin Brunner

Marquis de la Force – Nicolas Cavallier
Blanche de la Force – Olga Kulchynska
Chevalier de la Force – Thomas Erlank
Madame de Croissy – Evelyn Herlitzius
Madame Lidoine – Inga Kalna
Mother Marie of the Incarnation – Alice Coote
Sister Constance of St. Denis – Sandra Hamaoui
Mother Jeanne of the Holy Child Jesus – Liliana Nikiteanu
Chaplain of the Monastery – François Piolino
Sister Mathilde – Freya Apffelstaedt
First commissioner – Saveliy Andreev
Second commissioner – Alexander Fritze
Jailer – Valeriy Murga
Officer – Benjamin Molonfalean
Thierry – Yannick Debus

Poulenc’s magnificent opera tells a fictionalised version of the chilling story of the Martyrs of Compiègne, Carmelite nuns who, in 1794 during the closing days of the ‘Reign of Terror’ during the French Revolution, were guillotined in Paris for refusing to renounce their vocation.

Poulenc composed this opera (described as a devastating masterpiece) in the early 1950s, at a time when Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono and Karlheinz Stockhausen at the Darmstadt School (Courses for New Music) were experimenting with and composing uncompromising works. One should, however, bear in mind that this opera was composed only around eight years after Peter Grimes (Britten and Poulenc were friends). Poulenc’s neo-classical soundworld is immediately accessible, employing conventional harmonies (which readers may know from his keyboard works such as his organ and piano concertos, and choral works such as his Gloria and Stabat Mater). Poulenc turned to opera only in the latter half of his career. Dialogues of the Carmelites is one of the rare operas written after World War Two which appear regularly at opera houses all round the world. If you have never seen and heard it, I do urge you to seek out a performance, or at least a CD or preferably DVD.

Poulenc was a devout Roman Catholic (though gay, and the Church opposed homosexuality). Some believe that issues related to the Holocaust, German occupation and the Resistance, were a subtext to the opera, which was written in 1953 (no hints of that in this production). Dutch director Jetske Mijnssen has opted for a traditional production of this opera; she visited a Carmelite monastery near Zurich before working on the opera. The result is a mass of grey – bare grey walls, grey furniture, simple grey costumes for the nuns with flashes of white. The interior of the de la Force mansion in the first scene utilises the same grey walls, but adds some period furniture, a large mirror and a chandelier. Costumes for the family are appropriate for the aristocracy in the period leading up to the French Revolution. The set does not detract in any way from the haunting action; there are no quirks or surprises, one can concentrate on the dialogues. The final scene, where the nuns march off, stage right, to the guillotine, is particularly harrowing, the nuns deleting their names (which have been daubed on the walls by the mob) as they go off to lose their lives. A nice touch is the use of a plain black riser between the many short scenes, all that was missing was the sound of the guillotine.

Singing is of a very high order across the board. Nicolas Cavallier is a French speaker (one of three in the cast) and it shows in his diction in the first scene. Ukrainian soprano Olga Kulchynskaya, singing the role of Blanche de la Force for the first time, convinces with both brightness of voice and demeanour; she is rightly making waves at major opera houses. Star German soprano Evelyn Herlitzius, luxury casting, really has only one aria to sing, it is her death aria and needs reserves of power for both the notes and the acting – Herlitzius has this strength aplenty. Sandra Hamaoiu, as Sister Constance, had a charming and appealing sound throughout. Thomas Erlank was a convincing Chevalier brother to Blanche; he is an impressive South African tenor. I admired the forthright and firm voice of Swiss tenor François Piolino as the Chaplain.

Two singers stood out for me: British mezzo Alice Coote as Mother Mary and Latvian soprano Inga Kalna as Madame Lidoine. The power and range of their voices fitted the bill to perfection.

I felt there was an air of tentativeness, even uneasiness in both the orchestra and conducting at the première; this is not a score, I suspect, with which the orchestra is very familiar. I expect later performances to gain in orchestral confidence, with more bite to the trademark Poulenc dissonances.

This was a gripping evening to remember, and an opera to savour – despite, or perhaps because of its chilling subject. There are six more performances at Zurich Opera. Now that Switzerland has dropped its testing requirements for arrivals, do consider attending one of the remaining performances (final performance on March 5th).

John Rhodes

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