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Dialogues des Carmélites by Francis Poulenc_ Northern College of Music (RNCM) - Review

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. keyworthdavid@gmail.com https://uk.linkedin.com/pub/david-keyworth/49/b3a/b83 My debut poetry pamphlet is available at www.wildpressedbooks.com/david-keyworth.html
Event: -
Holier than thou
At the start of the Royal Northern College of Music's (RNCM) new production, directed by, Orpha Phelan, the curtain is a backdrop. It is painted in swirls of blood-red. Le Marquis de la Force talks to his son, Le Chevalier, about the panic and simmering unrest on the streets.

His daughter Blanche has returned home from visiting a convent, after finding a route through the angry crowd. In this homely fortress she is "the little lamb" frightened of shadows but she also announces her determination to become a nun.

The curtain rises like a guillotine in reverse. In a scene - visually - reminiscent of the priest standing outside the cursed house in The Exorcist, Blanche carries her case up the stairs and swaps her cardigan for a Carmelite habit.

RNCM, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, opera, Francis Poulenc, Dialogues des Carmélites
Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites, RNCM Opera: Photo: Robert Workman


On the night I saw the opera, Olivia Carrell combined diffident body language with soaring vocalisation of Poulenc's music.

Poulenc's opera was originally inspired by German novelist Gertrud von Le Fort's (1876 - 1971) Die Letzte am Schafott (The Last at the Scaffold), based on the execution, in 1794, of sixteen nuns in Paris. They were condemned to death during the post-revolutionary Reign of Terror, for refusing to obey the Civil Constitution of the Clergy law banning religious associations and loyalties.

Poulenc's score, played by the RNCM's orchestra, ranges from lush romanticism to discordant crescendos of agitation. The ominous ringing of a bell is a motif that recurs throughout the opera. It is not 'light opera' but there were times when I found my foot tapping along to one of the more melodic sections.

Despite the mesmerizing and sophisticated score, Poulenc's libretto, based on a stage play by Georges Bernanos, lacks dramatic tension, in my opinion. The characters speak in an unsubtle style and are two-dimensional and any hint of inner or social conflict rarely threatens the equilibrium.

RNCM, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, opera, Francis Poulenc, Dialogues des Carmélites
Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites, RNCM Opera: Photo: Robert Workman


Perhaps, Poulenc and Bernanos were suggesting that, if the outside world is in turmoil, most of us respond by seeking out the form of sanctuary which is most in tune with our inner nature.

The sets in RNCM's operas are always outstanding. Anna Bonomelli design favours minimalism, to the point where it wouldn't look out of place in IKEA.

The white background is particularly effective when combined with Matt Haskins' lighting design. The shadows cast by the Carmelites' wimples (reminiscent of the headdress worn in The Handmaid's Tale television series), is both enchanting and hints at their ultimate fate.

RNCM, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, opera, Francis Poulenc, Dialogues des Carmélites
Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites, RNCM Opera: Photo: Robert Workman


Poulenc's score reaches its divine peak in the Salve Regina of the final scene, where it juxtaposes with the brutality of the action.

Dialogues des Carmélites, first performed at La Scala Milan in 1957, is a plea for religious tolerance - from both governments and wider society. However, it doesn't offset this with an examination of how isolated religious communities can themselves become fanatical and veil any abuse of their own members.

Poulenc's music is timeless but the heavy-handed text of Dialogues des Carmélites, even when performed in modern dress, may struggle to outlive its era and chime with future generations.

RNCM, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, opera, Francis Poulenc, Dialogues des Carmélites
Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites, RNCM Opera: Photo: Robert Workman


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Why? Divine inspiration and singing at the RNCM
When: 8th - 14th December 2019
Phone: 0161 907 5200
Where: Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) 124 Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9RD.
Cost: Tickets from Ł21
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