Opera: Under the shadow of the guillotine

THE CARMELITES ENO COLISEUM LONDON

IT IS a cruel inevitability of opera set during the French Revolution that the principals shall be singing their heads off at the final curtain. In Poulenc's The Carmelites, a fervent rendition of "Salve Regina" is cut off in its prime, so to speak, the polyphony gradually thinning to a single voice as one by one our sisters in martyrdom go under the knife. It might be comical if it weren't so strangely, disarmingly, beautiful.

But then anyone familiar with Poulenc's sacred music - particularly works like the "Gloria" and the "Stabat Mater" - will know how easily, how systematically, its sweet seductiveness can lull you into submission. It's so sweet as to be almost subversive, and it's this that saves The Carmelites from a fate worse than, well, death. When the Revolutionary Tribunal finally passes sentence on the singing nuns, the word "death" is underpinned by the softest and sexiest chord there ever was. Fear is seductive.

And fear is key to the obsessive and very wordy play (by Georges Bernanos) on which Poulenc's opera is based. Fear, the last frontier; the doorway to a state of grace. Director Phyllida Lloyd and her designer Anthony Ward make that doorway the central metaphor - the opening and closing image - of their fluent and beautifully focused staging. White walls in shifting configurations, provide imprisonment and sanctuary. But there is no sanctuary from fear. Fear is the soul. And the soul is enclosed in shadows, grotesque Fritz Lang shadows cast like demons upon those white walls. Sister Blanche does not chase her own shadow; she is chased by it. Even high-backed convent chairs suggest the guillotine in waiting.

But this is a play that has been standing for too long in a kind of musical marinade. The real strength of Lloyd's production - and I doubt you'll see it better done - is the way in which she has revitalised its dramatic imperative. She really uses the music. Those brutal, melodramatic, shorn- off chords with which Poulenc punctuates the drama - like exclamation marks between scenes - are seized upon by Lloyd as points of transition, not beginnings and endings. So the whole has a fluency, a momentum, that the piece itself doesn't always earn.

Poulenc is remarkably supportive (dare I say reverent) in respect of Bernanos's words, projecting them with clarity and determination; they levitate from his score. But as librettos go, this one's a bit of a debate on the attainment of grace through self-subjugation, and for all the passing beauties, the strange and interesting refractions of the music, it's a bit like a boring dinner guest - there's no getting away.

So, a flawed piece but a flawless presentation. Under Paul Daniel's crisp direction, the beatific, harp-festooned score breathes but does not languish. The predominance of female voices does not pall either thanks to sharply defined individuals within the ensemble: Susan Gritton's high-spirited Sister Constance; Rita Cullis's commanding Madame Lidoine; Josephine Barstow's impassioned Mother Marie; and Joan Rodgers' tormented Blanche, her effulgent tone pushed excitingly in extremis.

Which brings us to Elizabeth Vaughan, hair-raising as Madame de Croissy, the elderly Prioress who will not go quietly into this long night. Vaughan still has so much voice it's frightening. And the diction. They simply don't make them like that any more.

Her death-bed delirium is in every sense the dramatic highlight of the evening. Hers is truly the gaunt face of fear, the strident voice of defiance. And when she realises that God has become a shadow to her, your eyes scan the stage and that's all there are - shadows.

Edward Seckerson

Box office: 0171-632 8300

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project