Dialogues des Carmélites, Royal College of Music, London; The Early Earth Operas/ENO, Coliseum, London

The ghosts of many dead are with us
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The Independent Culture

Set against the carnage of the French revolution, Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites has been much criticised for its excess of smells, bells and guillotines. Derided as mawkish Catholic propaganda, the opera has fallen out of fashion: too camp, too cruel, too radiant. But why? Despite its harrowing final scene and golden, glowing, disturbingly beautiful orchestration, this is a work that dares to engage with innocence, terror and rapture, while acknowledging the mixed motives behind martyrdom: the doubts, the resentments and the insecurities. For a conservatoire with a predominantly female body of graduating opera students, it is ideal material - a work with five strong roles for mezzos and sopranos, a chain of ravishing female choruses, and a scattering of minor supporting roles for less mature male voices. It is also, as Jude Kelly has shown us in the brief run of her powerful, pared-down production for the Royal College of Music, a work with universal resonance.

Since Sister Wendy returned to her caravan, the only nuns to feature in popular culture have been figures of fun or fear: the stuff of drag acts and horror movies. As Kelly observes in her director's notes, our culture is deeply suspicious of these women. But this is unsurprising given how radical a statement taking the veil has always been. For Blanche (Martene Grimson), the novice whose mother died of puerperal fever, and her 18th-century contemporaries, convent life offered more than an intimate connection to God. It was a sanctuary from dynastic marriages, multiple pregnancies and poorly managed births. Only in the convents could respectable young ladies read, sing, study and write. In holy orders there was even a career structure: a meritocratic forum in which a devout woman of humble origins, such as Poulenc's New Prioress (Simona Mihai), might rise through the ranks of middle-class girls to become a spiritual leader, just as the sans-culottes were beginning their own bloody revolution outside the cloister walls.

It is much to Kelly's credit that these historical factors are so carefully and unfussily explored as the Carmelites slowly approach their martyrdom. But Poulenc's dialogues are as remarkable for what is left unsaid about living as what is said about dying; subtly painting portraits of these women as the girls they once were and suggesting what they might have become in old age had they lived under other circumstances. Goodness is not an easy option in the face of terror, and the opera reflects the guilt and sorrow of post-war Europe with remarkable grace and sympathy. Here, in Kelly's modern-dress production, the West's struggle to come to terms with the manifestation of Islamic fundamentalism in its female populace offers a further paradox. Which, asks Kelly, is the more oppressive: to be forced to wear a veil, or to be forced - as in the schools of France - to remove it?

Despite the allusions to current conflicts and the painstaking exploration of female resistance, this is not a polemical production. Perhaps such lightness of touch is only possible with a student cast? As Kelly's young nuns remove their veils and habits at gunpoint and dress in the sexless sweat pants of the condemned - an abuse of power more shocking than any gratuitous splurge of sexual violence - the ghosts of many dead are with us. Here they are French nuns but they might as well be the Disappeared of Argentina or any victims of an inhumane regime. The point is that their humanity has been denied. And the point of Poulenc's opera is that in dying, they reclaim that humanity.

Whether or not you share Poulenc's faith, the genius of Kelly's tender, respectful production is that the faces of the dead stick in your memory. Not just those of poor, neurotic Blanche (Grimson), angry, ambitious Mother Marie (Katrina Waters), the terminally ill Old Prioress (Jane Stevenson), sensitive, ecstatic Constance (Elizabeth Watts) and the thoughtful, New Prioress (Mihai), but the faces of their un-named sisters. Tiny nuances of movement and expression show the individual behind the veil; tracing each woman's personal journey to the guillotine and making their consensus more powerful by revealing under what extreme duress it has been achieved. With luminous playing from the RCM Opera Orchestra under Jan Latham-Koenig, exquisite singing from Mihai and Watts in particular, perfectly judged designs from Michael Vale, and some of the finest female a capella ensemble work that I've heard, this was a production to rival any by the professional companies: a committed, heartfelt, original and serious interpretation, one that I will remember for many years, and one that surely deserves to break with college tradition and enjoy a revival.

Has opera suddenly become cool? According to the small boy who sat next to me at the Coliseum last Monday, it has. Only 24 hours after their Glastonbury debut, English National Opera were back in London for the premiere of John Browne's Early Earth Operas: a trilogy of short operas exploring creation myths (Firestone), the story of Cain and Abel (Dogfight), and Noah's Ark (Animalarky), composed for a cast of 320 primary school children from Hackney, Southwark and Westminster. Brilliantly staged by Clare Whistler, Karen Gillingham and Steve Moffitt, this wonderfully noisy event must have made the cast's families pink with pride, despite the libretto's finger-wagging implication that Cain's behaviour was down to bad parenting and Browne's occasionally derivative score. Special mentions seem unfair here but particular plaudits must go to the superb percussion group of Grey Coat Hospital School and Steven Nguyen: a remarkable little actor whose cry of "Am I not good?" at the end of Dogfight was truly heartbreaking. Marvellous.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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