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.
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
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 Director||Jeong Ae Ree|
|Music Director||Chan Wei Shing|
|Stage Director||Kyongsu Kathy Han|
|Marquis de la Force||Sangchul Jea (Baritone)|
|Chevalier de la Force||Shaun Lee (Tenor)|
|Thierry||Jonathan Khoo (Baritone)|
|Blanche||Victoria Songwei Li (Soprano)|
|Madame de Croissy (First Mother Superior)||Patricia Sands (Soprano)|
|Sister Constance||Capucine Daumas (Soprano),|
|Mother Marie||Rebecca Chellappah (Mezzo-Soprano)|
|Javelinot||Steven Ang (Baritone)|
|Madame Lidoine (Second Mother Superior)||Jennifer Lien (Soprano)|
|Sister Mathilde||Dorcas Lim (Soprano)|
|Mother Jeanne of Child Jesus||Grace Kuo (Soprano)|
|The Father||Reuben Lai (Tenor)|
|First Commissioner||Adrian Poon (Tenor)|
|Second Commissioner and Jailor||Keane Ong (Baritone)|
|Officer||Francis Wong (Baritone)|
|Carmelite Nuns (Ensemble)||Jeong Ae Ree|
|Jasmine Grace Towndrow|
|New Opera Singapore Orchestra|