Poulenc’s opera Dialogues des Carmélitesis rarely performed in this country so any chance to see it is worth grabbing, especially when it’s performed as well as it here is by the students from the Guildhall School in London. It’s a gift for female singers in particular and the School fielded a uniformly strong cast. Telling the story of the Carmelite nuns who were beheaded in 1794 during the French revolution, Poulenc’s opera underscores their tale with economy of gesture, lush harmonies and fluid vocal writing that is part recitative and part arioso.
The story focuses on Blanche, the daughter of a nobleman who decides to take holy orders and who becomes the lynchpin of the opera. She was sung with a beautiful purity of tone and line by soprano Anna Patalong, whilst Soeur Constance who provides a skittish foil to Blanche’s more serious bearing was taken with aplomb by Sophie Junker.
Sylvie Bedouelle was a tower of support as Mere Marie and Sky Ingram impressed as the new Prioress, Madame Lidoine. It seems invidious to single out one performer from such a tightly knit ensemble but by far the most impressive performance of the evening came from Cátia Moreso as Madame de Croissy, the old Prioress. Her death scene was not only moving, but sung with an amazing depth of feeling and Moreso possesses a full, rich mezzo-soprano voice which not only did this role justice but augurs well for an exciting professional career, which surely beckons.
Clive Timms conducted a tight account of the score and despite one or two moments of tuning and a few cracked brass notes, the orchestra played quite superbly.
Stephen Barlow’s staging and David Farley’s designs were exemplary. The evening began with an image of the mob throwing stones through the window of Blanche’s coach, and the shattered pane of glass became the visual metaphor for the evening. We viewed what happened on stage through this shattered pane of glass which opened and closed like the shutter on a camera allowing seamless changes between the many scenes, and through the minimal amount of props each scene was clearly and cleverly delineated. The opera was done in period yet never looked old fashioned, nor was any of the direction dull. Given the parade of operatic novices at the Coliseum – Rufus Norris, Stephen Goold, Mike Figgis and Sally Potter who have been allowed to traduce the classics, it’s nothing short of criminal that a director of Barlow’s imagination and creativity has never been invited to stage anything for ENO. Let’s hope he will but in the meantime don’t miss this staging of Dialogues des Carmélites.
There are further performances of Dialogues des Carmélites on7 & 9 March. Tickets available from the Barbican Box Office 020 7638 8891. www.barbican.org.uk.