Anyone who complains that there aren’t enough opportunities for women in the arts has never seen an opera about nuns – like Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites which has just been playing at the Guildhall School.
Written for an overwhelmingly female ensemble, Carmélites is something no conservatoire should attempt unless it’s having a bonanza year for women’s voices – something that wasn’t obvious from the cast I heard here. Apart from a charming cameo by Claire Lees as the young Sister Constance, the singing was unspecial – as was a production that gave these student performers nothing to do beyond the clichés to which opera resorts when dealing with things like nuns. Endless processions, hands clasped fervently in prayer etc.
That said, Carmélites is a hard piece to stage. Its narrative of a religious community making the ultimate sacrifice for faith during the French Revolution is sustained by what the title warns you to expect: a lot of dialogue, little action. But the score contains Poulenc’s most fervent (and devoutly Catholic) choral writing, and one of the most extraordinary final scenes in all opera as the entire community go, singing, to the guillotine. Done boldly, it can leave the audience pulverised. But here, alas, it was done tastefully and (worst of all) without imagination. You felt nothing.
Another opera that falls into the category of hard to do but worth the effort when it works is Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is back at ENO – not in the disturbing Christopher Alden production that played last time round but in the clean, spare 1990s classic by Robert Carsen, whose visual trope of double beds in the design never allows you to forget that this is a piece about being asleep. The problem is that Dream was written for a small space in which the voices of a countertenor (Oberon) and a bunch of boys (the fairies) would carry with a dense Shakespearean text. On the immense stage of the Coliseum it feels lost, despite good singing from a largely young, fresh cast.
More musicalised Shakespeare came to Wigmore Hall in a song programme organised by pianist Graham Johnson around the Seven Ages of Man speech from As You Like It. Delivered by a relay of singers, the songs were grouped to illustrate each “age”, from infancy to geriatricity, prefaced by the relevant fragment of Shakespeare’s text in a specially commissioned setting by composer Joseph Phibbs. At the conclusion, Phibbs’s fragments were performed together and turned out to be a perfectly coherent vocal scena: as effective as a long-duration piece of writing as it had been previously in the form of seven miniatures. Phibbs is a clever man.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection