BBC Proms reviews

Prom 31 review – Dialogues des Carmélites comes from Glyndebourne to the Royal Albert Hall

7 August 2023

The summer opera festival makes its annual visit to the BBC Proms.

Prom 31

Dialogues des Carmélites (Photo: Sisi Burn)

Every year Glyndebourne Opera brings one of its productions to the BBC Proms, and this year saw Barrie Kosky’s new Dialogues des Carmélites come to the Albert Hall in a semi-staged version by Donna Stirrup. Poulenc’s opera is undoubtedly powerful, and this presentation felt suitably emotional by virtue of the orchestral playing and the strength of the performances. This is not to say, however, that the opera did not suffer a little from being in a far larger space than the theatre at Glyndebourne. There, singers would have projected easily while using the intimacy of the venue to create an atmosphere of particular intensity. In the Albert Hall some struggled with projection, which is understandable because once a performer has worked up a particular sound in their body over the course of a substantial run, it is hard to reproduce it while simultaneously increasing the volume. The difficulty was compounded as the orchestra were standing directly behind the principals on the stage, rather than in a pit, but what could have been a major problem turned out to be only a small one by virtue of several compensatory factors.

The first was the sheer quality of the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s output, with conductor Robin Ticciati eliciting playing of immense sensitivity as he caught the glistening sweep of the score to perfection. At the same time, the powerful moments when, for example, the mob arrived at the convent, packed quite a punch. The second was the fact that, if the vocal performances did not always fill the Albert Hall’s vast interior, they were certainly appealing enough to draw us in. In particular, Sally Matthews as Blanche de la Force revealed a soprano of such beautiful, yet understated, intensity that it was impossible not to engage with her trajectory as her faith conquered her fear. The third was that the expressions and gestures did succeed in coming across in the large space, with the interactions between several of the characters proving especially strong. 

Matthews’ relationship with Florie Valiquette’s Sister Constance was particularly multifaceted. With her sweet soprano, Valiquette captured both the piety and playfulness of the young novice in a way that led Matthews to show both envy at her confidence and annoyance at her apparent levity. Similarly, when Constance gave her prophecy that they would die together Matthews’ irritated reaction to such ‘nonsense’ also hinted at how really it cut to the quick. Karen Cargill, with her sumptuous mezzo-soprano, was a class act as Mother Marie and revealed the stark contrast between her and Golda Schultz’ Madame Lidoine. It is difficult for the latter to make an impact, having to follow on from the Old Prioress who made such a dramatic exit, but it proved to be no problem for Schultz. 

“Poulenc’s opera is undoubtedly powerful, and this presentation felt suitably emotional…”

Prom 31

Dialogues des Carmélites (Photo: Sisi Burn)

One could genuinely feel how Marie wanted the role of Prioress, not because she was overly ambitious but because she had such a firm idea of how things should be done that she only trusted herself to do them. One could equally see how Madame Lidoine came across as more dynamic, down to earth and practically minded, and just how this rankled with Mother Marie. When Lidoine first arrived Marie did not stand on the same diagonal as the other nuns, and looked shocked when they all laughed in reaction to something she said. As the drama wore on, however, it was difficult to escape the conclusion that Madame Lidoine only sought to undermine Mother Marie in the latter’s head. It seemed that Lidoine was actually aware of how the situation might be difficult for Marie, and went out of her way to involve her and ask her opinion. 

One particularly telling moment came when Marie told Lidoine that Blanche’s brother had come to see her, and Lidoine immediately said that the circumstances permitted admitting him to do so. Marie’s reaction was one of someone who was not entirely opposed to the idea, but who had found herself considering the justifications for letting him in at length, and may even have been planning to present these to Lidoine. As a result, she was taken aback at just how casually Lidoine could make a decision when she had toyed so long with it. There was excellent support from, among others, Paul Gay as the Marquis de la Force, Valentin Thill as the Chevalier de la Force and Vincent Ordonneau as the Father Confessor. Katarina Dalayman also gave a show stealing performance as she underwent her difficult death as the Old Prioress.

The cast wore costumes but the sets and many of the props that would have been at Glyndebourne were absent. The loss of one prop did impact on the final ‘Salve Regina’, which simply saw the nuns exit the stage one by one as they died. The difficulty was that some died while still in a huddle on the stage and then walked off, while others were already exiting when the axe was heard falling. Poulenc designed the descents of the axe, which seem to splice through the orchestra, to come at irregular intervals, and thus add to the sickening sense of surprise. However, even the unorthodox spaces between them were planned to have maximum impact, so that having these disrupted by additional visual variations was slightly to the detriment of the overall effect. Nevertheless, this final scene was still very powerful and emotional, and the same could be said of the performance as a whole.

• Prom 31 can be audio streamed from BBC Sounds

• Details of the 2023 BBC Proms season can be found here.

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