Dialogues des Carmélites: Students of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Clive Timms (conductor), Silk Street Theatre, GSMD, London, 3.3.11
Marquis de la Force: Koji Terada
Le Chevalier: Charlie Mellor
Blanche: Anna Patalong
Thierry and Deuxième Commissaire: Matthew Wright
Madame de Croissy: Cátia Moreso
Mère Marie de l'Incarnation: Sylvie Bedouelle
Monsieur Javelinot and Le geôlier: Matthew Staff
Madame Lidoine: Sky Ingram
L'Aumônier: Alberto Sousa
Soeur Mathilde: Roisín Walsh
Premier Commissaire: Alexandros Tsilogiannis
Mère Jeanne: Sioned Gwen Davis
Conductor: Clive Timms
Director: Stephen Barlow
Designer: David Farley
Lighting Designer: Declan Randall
Video Designer: Chris Jackson
The final scene of this production of the Carmélites is astonishing. I'll confess that I've only just come out of the performance, but the effect is overwhelming. It is very easy to mess up the execution scene, especially in a low budget production like this, and to assume that the music will do all the work. Well, there is none of that here, they gauge it just right. Without giving too much of the ending away, the guillotine is actually on the stage, which to my mind brings valuable immediacy to the conclusion (I'm in favour of the plastic baby in Jenůfa too) and the sisters are picked off one by one with spotlight beams.
That final scene is the saving grace of this production, and the other staging decisions add up to about an equal number of hits and misses. The work lends itself to student performance; dramatically it punches above its weight, and Poulenc prided himself on the singability of all the roles. Most of the scenes are set in a convent, and there is no point in trying to sex that up too much when you're on a tight budget.
The stage design here centres on a small, square piece of raked staging that can rotate to change the audience's perspective on the action. That works well enough, but it is framed by large baffles in the shape of shards of glass around a broken window (broken, of course by the revolutionaries). These move in an out as the action demands. Perhaps the idea is to create a sense of claustrophobia as they encroach. But they wobble and are quite noisy when they move. Worst of all, they make the convent look like the batcave, an impression the nuns' habits do little to dispel.
All of the major roles are taken by postgraduate students, and all are equal to the task, although only a few excel. The first act poses two casting problems for a young company; the Marquis (Blanche's father) and Madame de Croissy, the old prioress. Both Koji Terada and Cátia Moreso do their best to seem convincing in these senior roles, but both lack credibility. They both also struggle with some of the lower notes and with the occasional long phrases.
This isn't really an opera to stage if you have a strong male cast, so either the Guildhall is doing better for female singers these days or they've got a production of something like Billy Budd lined up for next season. Of the gentlemen, only Charlie Mellor as Le Chevalier (Blanche's brother) seemed underused. He has a fine tenor voice and a real stage presence. The character is quite wet really, but Mellor is able to create the necessary empathy make the part matter.
The nuns all have distinctive voices, which is just as well, as Poulenc does very little musically to distinguish them. Sylvie Bedouelle as Mère Marie has a decisive and focussed tone, not a pretty sound as such, but ideal for the part. Sophie Junker is destined for great things. She sings the role of Soeur Constance beautifully, with compassion and immediacy. I wonder, though, if she would be better off on the recital stage. Her musicality does not fit so easily with the dramatic pretence and I often wished she could just stand and sing to us.
But the star of the show is undoubtedly Anna Patalong as Blanche. She has an astonishingly mature and sophisticated voice. It has richness and timbral complexity that puts all of her colleagues in the shade. She was as close to note perfect as any opera house could require. And she can really act. Remember the name.
Clive Timms conducted with the firm hand that this sort of performance requires, but maintained a sense of chanson flexibility throughout. The playing from the orchestra was a mixed affair. There were some serious ensemble problems in the first act, but most of the orchestra settled into it by the second. The only exception was the brass, who had a very bad night. Surely a major London music college can field a brass section that's better than this. Poulenc keeps them busy, true enough, but that's no excuse for the many splits and the unrepentant sins against intonation that not even the mother superior herself could find it in her heart to absolve.
But on the whole this was a great evening of opera. For those who tire of going to the same old venues to hear the same old singers, I'd heartily recommend a visit to the odd music college production to find out what the stars of tomorrow are up to. Not everything you will meet will be up to the highest standards the London stage has to offer, but some of these singers are clearly destined for great things. And if ever you see an opera billing that includes the name Anna Patalong, make sure you get a ticket.