Heavenly Dialogues des Carmelites, BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall


There were two surprises for me at the beginning of Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s production of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites performed as a semi-staged concert as part of BBC Proms. The first was how many people had come to the still quite rarely performed opera. The second was the acoustics when Robin Ticciati conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra opened the evening.

Whether my ears became accustomed to the sound or some clever acoustic magic was woven I do not know but this ceased to be a real issue once the glorious ensemble of singers gripped us in this harrowing and deeply disturbing opera.

The director of Glyndebourne’s full production, Barrie Kosky is a flavour of the month (his Ring Cycle Opera opens soon at the Royal Opera), and in this semi-staged performance you had a flavour of what he was up to there. Here it was directed by Donna Stirrup, based on the Glyndebourne show. She made excellent use of the space, the handling of the scenes requiring the entrance and departure of the nuns is particularly extremely effective. The just awful death scene of the old prioress was as powerful a piece of drama that you could expect in any theatre.

The underlying approach to the production was, well, fine. Think mixing up historic periods (some period costume but an electric iron, the revolutionaries in jeans and leather jackets sort of thing and clenched fist salutes and the nuns in what I guess is more contemporary habits etc.) Fortunately, in this performance none of that mattered a jot as it was all down to the singing and music – and here it was just exemplary.

Karen Cargill and cast

Golda Shultz, centre, and cast

Katarina Dalayman

Karen Cargill and Sally Matthews

Sally Matthews developed as Blanche as the dark story unfolded and her religious/ psychological dilemmas were captured superbly and as the old prioress Made de Croissy Katarina Dalayman gave a performance as shocking and gripping as could be wished for. The wealth of singers that have been assembled just goes on and on. Golda Schultz as the gentle, more worldly new prioress Madame Lidoine has a delicious voice and stage presence while Karen Cargill brought a sharply drawn character, a hard, strict but eventually also vulnerable Mother Marie of the Incarnation who contrasted perfectly with Golda Schultz. Similarly perfect in her role was Florie Valiquette as Sister Constance of St Denis and the closing of the opera with the two young women facing the guillotine was just, well, heart-breaking.

The male roles are harder to bring to life in a concert performance despite some fine acting and singing by Paul Gay as Marquis de la Force, Valentin Thill as Chevalier de la Force, and Vincent Ordonneau as Father Confessor. Clearly there isn’t much kindness you can give to the portrayal of the by now slightly mad French revolutionaries as the terror grips the fledging republic, so Gavan Ring and Michael Ronan are just villain Commissaries, and the jeering chorus of the mob sitting behind the orchestra were similarly ugly and thuggish in their hatred and bloodlust.

Judging from some eavesdropping in the interval there were plenty of newcomers to this opera and the complete silence throughout the performance captured the intensity of the evening and possibly some shock at the work.

Images by BBC/ Sisi Burn

Not just any old port in the storm, Les Troyens at the Proms, Albert Hall:

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