Opera: Hard habit to break

DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES

SPITALFIELDS MARKET

LONDON

POULENC'S LAST operas could hardly be more different: Les dialogues des Carmelites, a grand opera about nuns, their spiritual sublimity threatened by a very French revolution; La voix humaine, a tiny monologue in which a woman tortures herself by repeatedly phoning her lover, who wants to cut the connection forever.

Political and religious torment in one, private crisis in the other; and women the fulcrum of both. Poulenc identified completely with his female protagonist. "Blanche," he said of the novice at the centre of Dialogues, "was me, and is still me." Far from being the carefree charmer of musical legend, Poulenc, at least here, plumbed considerable personal depths.

You might think La voix humaine the more likely project for student performance, but Trinity College is nothing if not ambitious and, in Poulenc's centenary year, its staging of Dialogues (sung in English) showed its musical strength in depth: a large orchestra and a cast of dozens gave their all, and if the drama was intermittent, some of the fault may be the opera's. Where Poulenc saw saintliness in the nuns' sacrifices, we might see only misguided waste, yet as the score lines the nuns up at the guillotine, only to deprive them one by one of their heads, it is impossible to remain unmoved. At this moment, Kresimir Dolencic's plain production finds its target.

Poulenc makes heavy demands of his singers, in simply keeping going. The vocal style, taking a lead from Debussy, is an inch away from conversational recitative, with vocal display at a minimum. The singers get through vast amounts of text, so communication is at a premium. These are voices with time to grow, and not everyone got their text across in Spitalfields' rather unyielding acoustic, but there were several successes.

There's not much room for men in Dialogues, but Benjamin Lake makes the marquis a burly, insensitive brute, just the kind of father to drive Blanche to the nunnery. When there, she finds Edel O'Brien's remarkable Prioress, refusing to go gently into God's arms in a death scene of hair-raising intensity: a pity the libretto kills her off so early. Poulenc, though, wanted attention to focus on Blanche and here, in Ksenia Eremina Jones, he has a singer to watch closely. Her diction is clear, she acts well, and the voice is bright, even and expressive: ingredients, with a bit of luck thrown in, on which to build a solid career.

The performances benefited from the precisely sculpted conducting of Andrea Quinn, who also ensured that the orchestra got the measure of Poulenc's ebbing, flowing dramatic pulse. Over the past four years, Trinity's performances at Spitalfields have added considerably to London's operatic life. A shame, then, that for yet more "retail development", the Market Opera building will shortly be demolished. As the rich get richer, culture gets poorer: a familiar story.

Further performance of `Dialogues', Spitalfields Market Opera, 4-5 Lamb Street, E1, 7.30pm, Saturday 13 February, (0171-377 1362)

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