Concert review: Dialogues of the Carmelites – Poulenc – New Opera Singapore – 3 August 2018 – Victoria Theatre

Review by Derek Lim

New Opera Singapore has gained a reputation over the years for its edgy productions of less mainstream operas. Tonight’s brilliant performance of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, sung in English, may have been a daring choice – Dialogues is hardly a box office favourite – but it further cemented NOS’s credentials as a modern opera company.

A little background, given this work’s relative obscurity. In the late 1700s, the French Revolution had taken place and under the revolutionary government, a Civil Constitution of the Clergy was passed that led to the subordination of the Catholic Church in France to the government. Sixteen members of the Carmel of Compiègne refused to obey this constitution which mandated the suppression of their monastery, and they were guillotined in Paris in 1794. (They were beatified in 1906.)

Poulenc’s version is, shall we say, inspired by this story, and traces the story of Blanche, a high-strung young woman of noble heritage (she’s the daughter of a marquis) who runs away to the convent to escape the stresses that came about after the revolution. There, she witnesses the horrifying death of the Mother Superior and eventually meets her own end at the guillotine, rather like a reverse-Sound of Music meets the wrong side of Les Miserables.

Gloomy and medieval, the minimalist sets (not credited) reflected the darkness of the opera’s material, with the cast often lit in half-shadows – Caravaggio style – perhaps a metaphor for the oppression of the day. There were hardly any props per se save the Mother Superior’s throne, but clever use of lights meant the audience had to imagine most of the objects on stage. Hanging silk screens served both as screens for projection and movable barriers.

Once past the opening scenes, with choppy and somewhat unidiomatic English singing from Sangchul Jea (the Marquis de la Force) and Shaun Lee (his son, Blanche’s brother), we were allowed to enjoy the singing of the nuns and the unadulterated beauty of Poulenc’s score.

As protagonist, Singaporean soprano Victoria Songwei Li’s Blanche was in turn tragic, vulnerable and strong-willed and her characterization, both acted and vocal, were a pillar around which the rest of the cast’s performances hung. She was utterly believable, even if her character was a little annoying in parts.

Far more experienced performers inhabited the other main roles – American soprano Patricia Sands was a magisterial first Mother Superior, delivering a riveting death scene (is it one of the most horrifyingly real in opera?) with vocal acting that sent shivers down my spine, while mezzo Rebecca Chellappah’s Mother Marie was a maternal, yet no-nonsense, headmistress-type of nun. Chellappah especially impressed with her even vocal range and burnished tone, characterizing her role well.

Caupine Daumas as ditzy Sister Constance was a lovely foil to Li’s too-serious Blanche – a little over the top but delightfully so, while the second Mother Superior (surely Poulenc was satirizing here?) was played by the dramatic Jennifer Lien, who herself performed Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine with Shane Thio a few months ago. Smaller roles were equally well-cast, with Ruben Lai as the priest, Adrian Poon as the First Commissioner, and Keane Ong as the Second Commissioner.

But the evening’s unseen heroes were Chan Wei Shing and his lovingly-prepared 40+ strong orchestra. His steady accompaniment laid the ground for the action, with strong Mussorgsky-inspired colours carrying the evening through to the final scene’s trance-like conclusion – with all the nuns singing ‘Salve Regine, Mater misericoriae’ in chorus to synchronized choreography (somewhat reminiscent of Robert Carsen’s), while one by one marching to the scaffold, to the chilling, chilling sound of the falling guillotine blade.

Artistic DirectorJeong Ae Ree
Music DirectorChan Wei Shing
Stage DirectorKyongsu Kathy Han
Marquis de la ForceSangchul Jea (Baritone)
Chevalier de la ForceShaun Lee (Tenor)
ThierryJonathan Khoo (Baritone)
BlancheVictoria Songwei Li (Soprano)
Madame de Croissy (First Mother Superior)Patricia Sands (Soprano)
Sister ConstanceCapucine Daumas (Soprano),
Mother MarieRebecca Chellappah (Mezzo-Soprano)
JavelinotSteven Ang (Baritone)
Madame Lidoine (Second Mother Superior)Jennifer Lien (Soprano)
Sister MathildeDorcas Lim (Soprano)
Mother Jeanne of Child JesusGrace Kuo (Soprano)
The FatherReuben Lai (Tenor)
First CommissionerAdrian Poon (Tenor)
Second Commissioner and JailorKeane Ong (Baritone)
OfficerFrancis Wong (Baritone)
Carmelite Nuns (Ensemble)Jeong Ae Ree
Lin Yu Ching
Sindy Keng
Shimona Thevathasan
Jasmine Grace Towndrow
Rachel Ong
Patricia Teng
Phoebe Chee
Marie Luo
New Opera Singapore Orchestra

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