The Carmelites (Les Dialogues des Carmelites), ENO at the Coliseum

As part of the composer s centenary celebrations, ENO have mounted its first ever production of Poulenc's The Carmelites, first performed in 1957. It's a superbly crafted work as Poulenc manages to tap the core of the human spirit and lay emotions bare before our eyes, unlike many of his post-war contemporaries.

Much of this is down to the fact that he wrote The Carmelites at a time when his lover was dying and France was still coming to terms with the barbarity and coercion of German occupation. Many demons from the French psyche needed exorcising and in turning to Bernanos' novel about the martyrdom of a group of Carmelite nuns during the French revolution, the opera acted as a perfect allegory to do just that.

The score is glorious, the vocal writing, as you would expect, exemplary; and when Poulenc lets rip, the results are shattering, especially in the final thirty minutes. The nuns prepare for execution and join together in the “Salve Regina”, then they depart one by one with the loud thud of the guillotine falling in the background until every last nun is dispatched and the singing dies away with them. I know of no more emotionally gut-wrenching close to any opera.

Of course, without a brilliant cast, exemplary direction and wonderful orchestral playing, Poulenc's opera can pull less of a punch. No worries here, though. As the neurotic Blanche, Joan Rodgers gives a wonderfully complete characterisation of the aristocratic girl who joins the order then departs only to be re-united with her sisters at their moment of execution. Elizabeth Vaughan as the dying Prioress who denounces God is sensational, too, her death scene almost too painful to watch. Dame Josephine Barstow, making a welcome return to this house is an all too vulnerable Mother Marie who sings with her usual complete artistry. Susan Gritton provides perhaps the most gorgeous soprano singing of the evening in the role of Sister Constance. And Rita Cullis, Nerys Jones, Neill Archer and Alan Opie contribute strong performances in what is essentially an ideal cast.

Paul Daniel plainly adores this score and he secures faultless playing out of his ever alert orchestra. Phyllida Lloyd's production in Anthony Ward's spare but efficient sets provides the backbone for this exceptional performance. For those outside of London who can t make it to the Coliseum, the good news is that this is a co-production with Welsh National Opera, so audiences on their touring schedule can also see this once in a lifetime, unutterably moving piece of theatre.

Keith McDonnell