Dialogues des Carmélites
5th March 2011
Guildhall School of Music
Poulenc's music is difficult to pin down. It's always at once completely recognisable as his own even whilst he simultaneously flagrantly steals from other composers that he holds dear. So Stravinsky, Satie, Chabrier, Fauré, Gounod, Ravel and Bartok as well as Vaudeville, Ragtime and Jazz crop up all the time in his music, completely untransfigured by his own touch: he follows Stravinsky's advice to the letter - "the great composer doesn't borrow, he steals"! The tone is irreverant, playful, gay (both joyous and camp), delighting in diversion; when religious subjects are tackled, melodrama and mawkish sentimentality also come into play. Somehow, despite the fundamental lack of technique, it all works extraordinarily well, and this frabjous and vulgar admixture can become genuinely moving at its frequent best. For me best of all are the extraordinary chamber works (above all the flute and cello sonatas), and songs continuing in the noble tradition of Duparc, Fauré and Ravel.
Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites is his attempt at grand opera, and unlike the flippant mastery of the earlier light opera Tiresias' Tits (Les mamelles de Tirésias), it doesn't at all convince. The unlikeable tacky religious kitsch (not even likeable in a camp "good because it's bad" way) of the situation and music as well as the poverty of the actual musical material makes for a long evening. Though the characters are strongly drawn, they are hard to relate to - what are we to make of the eliptical and abnormal reasoning of the minds of the devout, whose attitude to life and death is so different from our own? Only Soeur Constance is really likeable, but because she's so explicitly normal and seems to lack the strangeness of the order's religious sentiments (until the ending that is). The music in Carmelites makes one almost suspect a confectionary misspelling - sickly sweet and pleasurable in small quantities but actually of little nutritious value. There are a few scenes that stick out but the lack of real musical invention makes it a dull overall listening experience. The final scene, where the nuns walk one by one to the scaffold is very arresting and attains a sort of mastery, and is at the very least very beautiful: the nuns sing Salve Regina to an inappropriately erotically opulent setting typical of Poulenc's lovely religious music (the prayers in act two get the same treatment).
One of the joys of seeing student opera productions is one only rarely afforded by medium sized houses like the ENO and almost never by organisations like the Royal Opera House: that of spotting new talent. The cast was in general very strong, especially the four main female leads. Most notable for me were Natalya Romaniw as Blanche and Sophie Junker as Soeur Constance.
Romaniw is a lyric voice but one feels that she might mature into dramatic repertoire very well - particularly the upper register is very beautiful and radiantly powerful: one is reminded a bit of Gundula Janowitz in this regard. She'd surely do well in one of the high lying Strauss roles like Arabella, or even maybe Daphne when the voice is ready.
Junker was completely charming as a stage personality and in voice - exactly what you want in a soubrette - I immediately wanted to see her as Susanna, and the voice's purity and shimmering beauty again made me think of Strauss roles - Sophie and Zdenka and maybe Zerbinetta if the coloratura is there (the part of Soeur Constance didn't require any to be on show). Perhaps these two could do Arabella together someday.
Ok, this wasn't much of a review, so shoot me. Please don't actually.