Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Carmelites @ Coliseum, London

5, 13, 15, 18, 22, 27, 29 October, 3 November 2005

The Carmelites

The Carmelites: Josephine Barstow as Mother Marie (Photo: Stephen Vaughan)

It is difficult to believe that the last performances of this production at ENO were back in 1999, for the effect was so stunning at the time that it seems like only a couple of years ago, at most. Poulenc’s The Carmelites is one of those operas – rarely seen – that leaves an indelible memory. At the time, it leaves one feeling both exhilarated and emotionally drained.

What I had forgotten, though, was just how exquisitely beautiful Poulenc’s music is; delicate, mournful solos for flute or oboe punctuating powerful, passionately orchestrated sections and serene liturgical settings. Perhaps one surprise is that Poulenc didn’t write more for the female chorus – the opera is all about a community of nuns, after all – but it is actually a very personal story about fear, faith and confronting one’s own inner demons, so this may be deliberate.

Dialogues des Carmélites is based on a real episode from the French revolution, in which the enclosed Carmelite nuns of Compiègne choose martyrdom rather than relinquish their faith and live in the world. The story is personalised through the character of Blanche, an aristocratic young woman who is prey to many fears (among them, in this production, the suggestion that her brother is harbouring distinctly un-brotherly love for her) and sees the convent as a sanctuary. Her triumph is that she finally overcomes her fear and joins her sisters in death.

Other personal battles are even more moving, however. The elderly Prioress feels abandoned by God as she faces a painful death, and her suffering, both mental and physical, is powerfully sung and acted by the marvellous Felicity Palmer. Death in opera is hardly rare, but rarely convincing; this one is powerful.

The equally marvellous Josephine Barstow returns to the part of Mother Marie of the Incarnation, the assistant Prioress. Responsible for the decision of the community to take the vow of martyrdom, she is persuaded by the convent’s chaplain that her own destiny may lie in working for God in a different way (the real Mother Marie died in 1836 and documented the martyrdom of the sisters, resulting in their beatification in 1906).

I hope they will forgive me for saying so, but Palmer and Barstow are no longer in their first youth. Of the two, the former shone more brightly on opening night. The latter has been absent from the London stage for a good period; her voice didn’t have the brilliance I usually look for but she warmed up in Part II, when her character really shows its complexity, and she is still a marvel to watch on stage.

Catrin Wyn-Davies is a suitably neurotic Blanche – she’s also a good actress – with a lovely tone in quieter passages but an unpleasant metallic grate in the upper register, noted a couple of years ago in War And Peace. Sarah Tynan sparkled as the flighty Sister Constance, and Orla Boylan was a warm Madame Lidoine, the new Prioress.

Of the few men in the cast, Ryland Davies made the most impression with a marvellously sympathetic Chaplain. Ashley Holland was an imposing Marquis de la Force, Blanche’s father; Peter Wedd as The Chevalier, her brother, had a lacklustre start but impressed more in Part II.

This production has worn well in its simplicity; ENO has always been good at constructing scenes from nothing much more than moving walls and the odd bit of furniture, with some clever lighting to change the mood. The Rennie Mackintosh-style chairs still seem out of place in the convent, but there is little to fault overall here in a production that puts emotions firmly centre stage. The closing scene – the sisters sing the Salve Regina, their voices reducing as one by one they go to the guillotine, and Poulenc punctuates their ecstasy with the sound of the blade – is still almost unbearably moving.

The Coliseum was little more than half full for this opening night, which is tragic. With one of our dwindling chances to hear the magic Paul Daniel weaves in the pit, and an opera of beauty and power, even this great house should be full. Unmissable.

buy Felicity Palmer MP3s or CDs
Spotify Felicity Palmer on Spotify

More on Felicity Palmer
The Queen of Spades @ Coliseum, London
Interview: Felicity Palmer
The Carmelites @ Coliseum, London