A review of Poulenc’s second opera, presented by the performers of the David Seligman Opera School, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Sung in English.
Francis Poulenc, the bisexual, French composer is known for a lot of things. His cheery music covers broad strokes in his canon, yet his masterpiece remains Dialogues des Carmélites. This fictionalised take on the Martyrs of Compiègne makes for a fittingly, great opera, though it is not without it’s slight flaws.
Poulenc fashioned this fine work with scuttling rhythms, tributes to Catholic chants and a fine ensemble of large female voices. In France, The Reign of Terror saw many types of people executed for different reasons, for this warped cause. In what is one of the most lamentable moments in their history, the nuns of the Carmel of Compiègne are sentenced to death. The opera famously ends with each one of them getting the guillotine…
The students of the Royal Welsh College and Music and Drama deliver fine vocals and a stellar orchestra of 60 players also impress. A very bouncy James Southall remained spirited and rigorous throughout this near three hours. A long first half, left us taking a break in the middle of the second act and the English translation remaining mostly audible, a rarity in opera. Director Rachael Hewer kept most of the faith in setting, though couldn’t resist some brief, subversive moments.
Stella Sifan Chen makes a production of arches, candles and the colours of the French flag looming over the proceedings. Costumes by Shane Erikson are of the era and a nice touch see’s each of the nuns adorned with their personal, golden halos to remind us of their sainthood (they were beatified in 1906 by Pope Pius X).
The cast is filled with vast promise and far too many to mention in an idle review. Easy to get confused with which sister is which, but all the cast had Mary on their side, some angular moments of blocking also effective for the space.
The executions themselves were more of an axe affair then the guillotine, a white screen fell for the entire last scene and blast of harsh light from James Blakeman got each nun on the block at sonic speed. I should be more moved at this final agony, yet I’ve always thought Poulenc could have lost himself even more in this wallowing tableaux, piercing moments throughout the opera prove this dreaded anticipation. These students pulled off this demanding opera with might.
Next David Seligman Opera School is Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel in July 2023.