Just over 30 years ago, when Poulenc’s opera was last given at Covent Garden, the great French soprano Régine Crespin – one of the composer’s favourites – gave an interview in which she described “two Poulencs”. One was brilliant, extrovert, delighting in dirty jokes. The other was introspective and obsessed with religious crisis. But in the theatre, she said, “he was always in a good mood”.
What we get in Dialogues des Carmélites – a 1950s opera that sounds much older – is the religious crisis and, musically speaking, the good mood. The religious crisis is embodied by members of a Carmelite order who face death during the reign of terror in 1790s Paris – a crisis communicated with striking simplicity by Robert Carsen’s well-travelled production, which comes to the Royal Opera with freshness intact.
And the “good mood”? An evening of musical theatre that ends with a line of nuns being guillotined is hardly jolly – in the way Poulenc’s next-best-known opera, Les mamelles de Tirésias, undoubtedly is. Nevertheless, listening to Dialogues in this radiant account conducted by Simon Rattle, you can’t mistake its uplifting sincerity and devotional inspiration, as if the composer had simply translated to the theatre the Catholic piety of his liturgical works. Rattle moves from scene to scene with admirable urgency and expressive buoyancy, never letting the music sound sentimental. But this is an opera which, in my experience, never fails, and I found myself wishing that, on his long-awaited return to Covent Garden, Britain’s best-known Berliner had been given a bigger challenge.
The cast is to be treasured for its evenness. Deborah Polaski, in better voice than expected (for her first Royal Opera appearance for 16 years), handles the Old Prioress’s death scene with dignity. Sally Matthews captures Blanche’s impulsive temperament from first scene to last, while Emma Bell’s voluptuous-sounding New Prioress makes an imposing centrepiece in Acts Two and Three. A strong ensemble includes Sophie Koch’s Mother Marie, Anna Prohaska’s Constance, Thomas Allen’s Marquis and Luis Gomes’s Chevalier, bravely replacing an indisposed Yann Beuron mid-performance. The show is also notable for its use of a 67-strong community ensemble, including long-term unemployed, who play the threatening Paris mob.
And did Poulenc’s climactic “Salve Regina” cast its customary spell? Not quite. Instead of sending the nuns one-by-one to an offstage scaffold, leaving the rest to our imagination, Carsen gives them an aerobics routine to the accompaniment of an amplified guillotine. It is the only misjudgement in this strangely uplifting evening.