Opera: Under the shadow of the guillotine


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

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before