It is easy to see why Poulencs opera Dialogues des Carmlites was so well received after its first performance in 1957. But it is also possible to detect the reasons for its relative obscurity ever since.
On the plus side, Carmlites is a work of extraordinary lyricism and rhythmic vitality. Indeed, Poulenc consciously eschewed the idea of employing new-fangled tonalities in the score. The opera also has a tight dramatic structure. Like Benjamin Brittens The Turn of the Screw (1954), it is cast as a series of tableaux, each linked by brief orchestral interludes. On the downside, the subject matter is hardly gripping. It is very much a personal response by the born-again Catholic Poulenc to Georges Bernanos play about a convent of nuns martyred at the guillotine during the French Revolution. The three-hour meditation on the power of divine grace is rather hard going.
David Farleys designs and Stephen Barlows direction focused on the individual human tragedies in the opera, and used simple symbolic signposts along the way. A revolving central section on stage gave us various perspectives on the drama. The sliding wings that opened and closed each scene showed a shattered window-pane, representing the iconoclasm of the revolutionaries, and also reminding us of the heroine Blanches horror at the attack on her coach in Scene One. The execution scene was depicted indirectly, with an upstage guillotine surrounded by the mob, while the nuns sang the Salve Regina until picked off one by one by the blade.
The singing by the Guildhall students was impressive, with little to differentiate them from their professional peers. Ctia Moreso as Madame de Croissy, the old Prioress, dominated the stage during her two principal scenes. Stern and calculating in her interview with Blanche before joining the Carmelite order, she gave way to physical and spiritual anguish during her death scene. Amy J. Paynes Mother Marie held the right balance between weighty authority and maternal warmth. Sky Ingram as the new Prioress exposed the uncertainty and vacillation which the real Madame Lidoine must have endured as the revolutionary Terror engulfed the nuns.
Alberto Sousa as the Father Confessor had a bright, clear tenor with excellent diction, and the same was true of Paul Curievici as Blanches brother, the Chevalier de la Force. His controlling manner at the start of the opera was thoroughly believable, contrasting with his desperate, ardent concern for his sisters welfare as he prepared to flee abroad.
Natalya Romaniw held up well as Blanche. She is an ambiguous character not especially sympathetic, but not unlikeable either. Perhaps Poulenc intended her to be as complex and enigmatic as the rest of us a kind of Everywoman. Inevitably, though, she pales in comparison with the sprightly Sister Constance (Sophie Junker), who also has the best tunes.
The orchestra, playing out of sight beneath the stage, both supported the singers and shone on their own especially during the interludes. Overcoming the odd brass blip, conductor Clive Timms ably picked out the bright, brittle elements of Poulencs orchestration.