Abbotsford Convent could not have been a more appropriate setting for a performance of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. Based on a true story, this devastatingly powerful opera tells of 16 Carmelite nuns of Compiègne, who refused to renounce their faith and were guillotined in 1794 during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror
Presented by Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, in association with the ARC Centre for the History of Emotions, University of Melbourne, this performance certainly had emotional engagement at its core. In fact, it might have been a little unkind of Creative Director Jane Davidson to raise the lights towards the end of the opera and have chorus members walk around eyeballing audience members in defiance and accusation when the imminent martyrdom of the nuns was provoking such a strong and sometimes tearful emotional response.
Nevertheless, it is to the great credit of creatives and performers alike that the audience was so moved. When discussing this production, everybody I encountered who had seen a performance was full of praise for the quality of the total experience. The music itself is both passionate and accessible.
Poulenc resisted contemporary trends in atonality, later saying, “You must forgive my Carmelites – it appears they can only sing tonal music”. There might have been the occasional minor lapse in orchestral tonality, but conductor Richard Davis elicited some fine playing from his young band of musicians. Head Repetiteur, David Barnard was impressive in his expressive treatment of piano part of Poulenc’s score in addition to covering music written for strings. As the orchestra took up a sizeable proportion of the audience space there was sometimes the danger of the singers being overwhelmed, but the way the piano was employed tended to keep this to a minimum.
For various reasons, the opera premiered in Milan at La Scala and was sung in Italian. Although Poulenc claimed that Dialogues des Carméliteswas to be sung in the language of the audience this seems to contradict the fact that he wrote the melodic lines “to follow the emphasis and contours of the French language”, as stated in the program notes. Happily, this production was sung in French, with laudably authentic accents for the most part, accompanied by conveniently placed surtitles.
The meshing of Davidson’s direction and Matthew Adey’s set and lighting design suggested harmonious agreement as to what would create the most potent dramatic impact. The small proscenium arch stage was made even smaller by a screen of doors that were opened at strategic moments to reveal the blood-thirsty, howling mob clawing the air, sometimes in slow motion and sometimes as a frozen tableau. A runway thrust almost the length of auditorium allowed for changes of scene, clarity of movement and greater immersion on the part of the audience. The walk to the guillotine offers directors one of the best opportunities for a coup de théâtrein opera. Many opt for the nuns walking up the stairs and into the wings; others have images of rivers of blood. In this case, a simple, stylized guillotine was set up at the top of the runway and each nun collapsed onto it in a blackout as the blade descended. Much of the effect depends on careful timing, which was pretty well spot on for the performance I attended. Poulenc combines the repeated crash of the blade with the gradually diminishing voices of the of nuns singing “Salve Regina” against the larger chorus as they walk one by one to their martyrdom. It is a stunning display of humans at their best and worst – horror and tragedy on a scale that is at once personal and societal. In terms of religious questions, it is complex.
As the central character of Blanche, daughter of the Marquis de la Force, soprano Teresa Ingrilli, captured her youthful innocence and the timidity that drove her to the Carmelites and made it difficult for her to embrace martyrdom until the very end. Dramatically expressive, she sang with an attractively warm tone. As her convent friend, Amelia Wawrzon was an animated Constance, her bright, well-projected soprano fresh and vibrant.
Heather Fletcher was compelling in the role of the Prioress, Madame de Croissy. Her final scene, as she dies in a paroxysm of agony and doubt, is one of the most disturbing moments in opera. Fletcher’s voice is strong and she has a great deal of vocal colour at her disposal, which she used to telling effect. It was a memorable interpretation. As Assistant Prioress, Rebekah Luise provided a chillingly disapproving and rigid foil to the emotional outbursts of others, her timbre distinctive and appropriate to the role.
Although the new Prioress, Madame Lidoine, only appears in the second half of the opera it is a role that has been undertaken by a succession of the most famous singers. The original French cast featured Régine Crespin as Madame Lidoine and Opera Australia’s 1984 production saw Joan Sutherland in this role. Alexandra Ioan’s warm personality and beautiful, smooth voice made her a most appealing Prioress – just the type to inject courage into her charges even though she deplored her assistant’s promotion of martyrdom. As Dean of the Community, Olivia Federow-Yemm’s lovely, full mezzo-soprano helped to soften the more brutal aspects of this tragic outcome as she supported her Prioress and the nuns.
Dialogues des Carmélitesis very much a work that showcases female opera singers and one of the striking aspects of this production was the fascinating variety of vocal colour within and between their voices, which enabled them to intensify characterisation. Another was the admirable standard of the singing, both musically and vocally. While some were pursuing advanced studies and had appeared in professional productions, most were young and relatively inexperienced.
Performances by the male singers were a little more variable in quality. In the opening scene, baritone Lucas de Jong’s vast professional experience immediately established a high performance standard and he was ably complemented by the very promising young tenor Thomas Harvey as his son. Other male roles were handled capably. As for the chorus work, it was committed, full-bodied and free of wobbling tremolo.
In 2017 Melbourne Conservatorium of Music mounted an acclaimed production of Monteverdi’s Tale of Orpheus. This year, houses were full once again, so it seems that word has spread: these productions are not to be missed.
Melbourne Conservatorium of Music’s DIALOGUES DES CARMELITES was presented at the Abbotsford Convent on August 31, 2018.