It was a surprise to me to learn that this production was first seen in 1997. The stark staging, the dramatic use of lighting, the enlarged and menacing chorus and the actors manage to create such a strong visual imagery I forget there’s hardly any set. This stripped-down Dialogues, directed by Robert Carson and designed by Michael Levine, is vast, imposing and powerful.
I’m not going to pretend Les Dialogues is an easy opera but it’s certainly involving: it’s based on the true story of sixteen Carmelite nuns sentenced to the guillotine during the French Revolution.
Poulenc’s score is beautiful and haunting, with scenes utterly heart-wrenching and episodes emotionally gruesome; Deborah Polaski singing Madame de Croissy, the prioress, in the final agonising throes of death was some of the most extreme acting I have ever witnessed. Often this role is given to a slightly knackered end-of-her-career soprano but Polaski is one of the leading Wagnerian sopranos of our generation, so we are lucky to witness such fine and powerful singing.
There were some great vocal performances too from Anna Prohaska as the jolly, wise nun Constance, a delightful silvery soprano with sparkling top notes and a very French approach, which is more than could be said for Sally Matthews as our heroine, Blanche de la Force.
I have always loved Matthews as a Mozartian singer and here she is a beautiful and sensitive actress, portraying the stifling neurosis of a girl who can’t bear to live in the world, but my French boyfriend Monsieur Legris told me it was the worst French he had ever heard and he could only understand what she was saying by reading the surtitles. Quelle horreur!
We had another wonderful chance to hear my up-and-coming favourite tenor of the moment, Luis Gomez (who I predict will be a superstar). Gomez went on after the interval to rescue an ailing Yann Beuron in the role of Chevalier de la Force, Blanche’s brother, and he shone in his short, passionate exchange with Matthews.
There was some great singing from Sophie Koch as senior nun Mother Marie and Thomas Allen as Blanche’s father, whose defeat when he consents to his daughter’s wishes to join the convent is heartbreaking.
Of course, everyone waits for the famous guillotine scene at the end of the opera, the chorus diminishing by one each time one of the nuns is killed. This was done tenderly and symbolically.
It was wonderful to see Simon Rattle in the pit again as well as Graham Norton in the bar during the interval. I didn’t know he was a Poulenc fan. That certainly made my night.
Dialogues des Carmelites runs until 11 June. Book tickets here