The opening image of Phyllida Lloyd's riveting production of Poulenc's The Carmelites is played out in ghostly silence, like a recurring dream, and its significance is only revealed in the closing minutes of this strangely affecting opera.
In the opening minutes we learn the young woman's identity: Blanche de la Force (Catrin Wyn-Davies). We also learn that her pregnant mother died giving birth to her after the carriage she was travelling in was set upon by the mob. That fear resides now in Blanche, and exactly how she strives to overcome it lies at the very heart of the piece. As Poulenc himself said, this is an opera about fear and the fear of fear. It is also an opera about grace and the transference of grace; the dramatic impetus of the piece hinges on whether Blanche will find it or not.
Impetus is key to Phyllida Lloyd's success here. Her staging is precisely how Poulenc, as composer and librettist, will have imagined but dared not have hoped his opera would unfold. Like all the best directors Lloyd goes with the narrative flow, the internal rhythm of the piece. The action is effectively continuous, the emotional pull of one scene connecting immediately with the next.
The musical language is a most individual mix of threat and transfiguration (the grace Poulenc spoke of). Paul Daniel and the ENO Orchestra give a poetic and arresting account of his luscious string writing. But the real drama lies in the short, sharp, shocks of contrast, the guillotine-like chords that Lloyd uses as editing points in her highly filmic story-boarding.
Anthony Ward's designs are a further asset to Lloyd's ritualised fluidity. Sliding white walls enclose and protect "the brides of Christ". But it's the fear of what lies beyond them that intensifies their potency as a visual metaphor. Of course, no company does The Carm- elites without feeling absolute confidence in their female talent. I wish I could share ENO's belief in Catrin Wyn-Davies (Blanche). In marked contrast, everything seems to be gelling for Sarah Tynan, whose impossibly eager Sister Constance shone through her every scene. And that fearful young woman at the start? What did await her beyond the open doorway? Go and find out.
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