The Guildhall School of Music and Drama has long been know for their enterprising and ambitious operatic productions. In staging Poulenc's three act opera Dialogues des carmélites the college upholds this reputation.
The opera explores the events that lead to 16 Carmelite nuns being beheaded during the Reign of Terror. Using the composer's consummate skill at writing for voice (which comes out here in fluid and broadly seamless patterns of recitative and more lyrical melodic lines), his perfumed tonal sensibility, and his deep religiosity (which is richest and most apparent in the unaccompanied hymn settings in the second act of the opera), it paints unexpectedly multifaceted psychological portraits of a number of the nuns as they prepare for their inevitable martyrdom.
Most especially it is the conflicted and terrified protagonist, Blanche de la Force, who comes in for the greatest examination. Blanche deserts her aristocratic family under the pressures of the shadows of the Revolution and joins the Carmelite order in the hope of escaping death. But, following much counsel with first the ailing Prioress Madame de Croissy (Cátia Moreso, who, despite slipping behind the beat a little in her first scene, ultimately proved stricken, defiant in death), next a compellingly unguarded and sincere Soeur Constance (played by an effervescent Sophie Junker), and ultimately Mére Marie (a bold and tough Sylvie Bedouelle), Blanche ultimately accepts her fate and becomes a martyr, transfigured in the light of grace, along with the other sisters. Played here by an anguished, timorous, and yet angrily frustrated Anna Patalong, Blanche exemplifies the search for meaning and purpose in the opera, which ultimately resolves to a question of why and for whom we die: the opera has surprisingly interesting things to say on the subject, despite its stupidly one-sided treatment of the politics of the Revolution.
With Poulenc's opera, then, the college has hit upon another winner: both intense and expansive, banal and mystical by turn, this is a substantial piece that yet seems made for this setting and these forces. The front line cast is relatively small, whilst the need of set and choreography is minimal, with many scenes being limited to two characters and action being concentrated primarily in the tumultuous music of the orchestra (which veered to the too swift under the direction of Clive Timms, but whose playing, apart from a couple of minor tuning issues in the middle strings and one or two exposed moments in the brass, was generally strong; vivid even), and in the remarkably fluid vocal lines of the singers. As such, a comparatively limited production such as this one could concentrate its energies on other matters. And this it did to largely winning effect, with Stephen Barlow's direction being straightforwardly effective, pointed well towards the big dramatic moments (I particularly the staging of the guillotine scene) and always in control of general dramatic flow and pacing.
That being said, David Farley's set design here - a tilting central stage with occasional use of video placed to the rear of the stage, crafty use of moving panels to hide scene changes and to shift action to the front of the stage, and limited but serviceable props - served its purpose well. Costumes, similarly, were of the period and unfussy.
A fine achievement, then, and one well worth checking out, particularly for the chance to hear Poulenc's vibrant score in the live and loving contextualisation that it deserves.