Poulenc’s only full-length opera hasn’t been performed by the Royal Opera since 1983, when the work’s original Covent Garden Opera 1958 staging by Margarita Wallmann had a most unexpectedly late, last outing, not having been otherwise revived after 1963. Those five last performances thirty-odd years ago were my introduction to the work: and it would be idle for me to pretend that anything much about this “new” (actually anything but new) production – singing, staging, playing and conducting – strikes me as being anywhere near the level achieved back then. This isn’t, I should make clear, primarily a criticism of Robert Carsen’s characteristically minimalist mise-en-scène – though it ultimately fails the work right at the point where it matters most, of which more anon – but more of a reflection on the decline of musical values traceable between the two sets of performances.

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In 1983, Blanche was sung by Felicity Lott, with Valerie Masterson as the new prioress, Mme. Lidoine, Régine Crespin as the old one, Mme. de Croissy, and Pauline Tinsley as the mad-for-martyrdom (but ironically avoiding it herself) Mère Marie. The current practitioners of these roles are, respectively, Sally Matthews, Emma Bell, Deborah Polaski and Sophie Koch, and I have to say that of the four, only Ms. Koch could be said to achieve a level comparable to that of her predecessor. Crespin’s account of the old prioress’ death throes at the end of Act I is one of those experiences seared into the memory, so vivid, so completely realised both dramatically and vocally, that anyone following it had better produce something utterly remarkable just to keep up. Alas, I thought Ms. Polaski simply too worn and wobbly of voice, and far too externalised in her melodramatic theatricality, to carry anything much by way of conviction (though having to do an intimate and physically harrowing death scene meant to be set in a tiny cell but set here instead on a scenery-free stage opened-out width-wise to the size of a football pitch can’t be easy for anybody). And yes, I am aware that the old prioress is supposed to be old: but as Poulenc himself said, “I’m not interested in intelligent singers. I want beautiful voices”.

On this basis, one wonders what he’d have to say about Sally Matthews as the “heroine” Blanche, whose voice now, far from clarifying and opening out as I once hoped it would, has instead darkened and clotted to such an extent that, heard up against a genuine mezzo such as Sophie Koch, it’s her you would assume was the mezzo, and Koch the soprano. The whole point of casting Blanche is to secure a soprano sound like that of Denise Duval, for whose typically bright, almost acidic French timbre Poulenc wrote the role, an aural analogue to wide-eyed youthful innocence. Ms. Matthews sounds here more like Klytemnästra after a particularly bad night, with a thick, covered, mewling sound quite at odds with the fretful teenage character she’s meant to be incarnating, and for which no amount of intelligence or stage savvy can compensate. As for Emma Bell, I find myself greatly saddened that a singer who little more than a decade ago galvanised an RFH audience with her astonishing Rodelinda should have developed into such a squally, prematurely aged wobbler, with a snatched-at, screamy top and absolutely no legato. Eyes closed, I’d say the voice belonged to someone in their mid/late-50s who’d sung nothing but killer repertory getting there: that it actually belongs to a soprano still on the right side of 40 who’s sung relatively prudently I find very depressing, and I scarcely have to invoke the exquisite vocal shade of Valerie Masterson in order to do so.

Sophie Koch was wonderful, tout court, as Mère Marie, the assistant prioress, stern and sympathetic by turns, and more importantly, supremely well sung, an amazing achievement given that Tinsley before her was a Hochdramatischesopran, and that the role, especially in Marie’s martyr-mode in Act III, is written for one, which Koch really isn’t at all. There was a fine vocal performance too from Anna Prohaska, making her house debut as the scatty and garrulous Sister Constance, on whom not only do presentiments of the upcoming catastrophe weigh, but who eventually becomes the vessel of spiritual grace through whom – and in whose company at the guillotine – Blanche at long last finds the courage to overcome her fears.

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There are a clutch of smaller roles for the men, the two principal of which are those of Blanche’s father and brother, the Marquis and the Chevalier de la Force (the only two characters dressed in recognisably period costumes, by Falk Bauer). Thomas Allen’s voice has now aged and dried out to such a degree that in the rapid parlando he is given to sing  he sounds only a shadowy husk of what once was: and for Yann Beuron’s Chevalier, indulgence in advance was requested on grounds of indisposition, alas immediately apparent in the tenor’s uncharacteristically pinched and parched sound (he was tremendous as Gonzalve in L’heure espagnole in this house little more than four years ago). Unsurprisingly, such were his audible afflictions, he didn’t make it past Act I; and Act II, after the solitary interval (Acts II and III being played continuously) was prefaced by Kasper Holten appearing to inform us that Luis Gomes – a member of the current Jette Parker training programme and the official understudy – would continue in the role, which he did, excellently. Alan Oke was also declared to be souffrant, as the French so delicately put it, in the role of the Compiègne convent’s father confessor, but a mild and unwonted unsteadiness apart, he emerged unscathed to add to his lengthening list of distinguished tenor cameos here.

In smaller roles, Catherine Carby was a persuasive Sister Mathilde, whilst Ashley Riches impressed yet again as the looming and unyielding Officer who announces the nuns’ fate (to which dramatic end it might have helped if he had been dressed as something other than an anonymous tramp, like virtually everybody else on stage). And there was a touching and dignified appearance, as Mère Jeanne, by Elizabeth Sikora, who in 1983 was one of the rank-and-file nuns not individually identified (though I dare say she knows which of the eleven she was) and who latterly we seem to encounter mainly as the singer Katharina Schratt in MacMillan’s ballet Mayerling.

The chorus of the ROH, of which the men are directed only ever to sing offstage, was augmented visually by umpteen extra actors, and an enormous, 70-odd strong body called in the programme the “Royal Opera House Community Ensemble” comprising students, the long-term unemployed and ex-offenders brought together as part of the house’s indefatigable outreach programme. Together, they all made for a large anonymous, threatening mass of shabby revolutionaries whose presence in Carsen’s view of the opera has to be stressed at all costs right from the word go (Poulenc wasn’t remotely interested in them, and never expected them to be visible). Given that Poulenc wrote his own libretto, albeit one closely based on Georges Bernanos’s original scenario, you might think that a director would give the composer the benefit of the doubt: but no such luck. I think Carsen greatly overestimates the significance a silent body of people can have in an opera: and far from making any particularly powerful theatrical point, they serve mainly as (the non-existent) set dressers, mooching moodily across the empty stage in Act III depositing in the process all the appurtenances of post-revolutionary destruction (i.e. upturned chairs and benches) and then moodily mooching back the way they came, clearing the scene of all its clutter in time for the closing scene of mass execution.

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Alas, here the staging collapses into bathos altogether, and I am frankly amazed that such a pitiful piece of theatre should have now been staged no less than THIRTEEN times here, there and everywhere – Milan, Vienna, Toronto – since it was first seen in Amsterdam in 1997. It is, of course, cheap to mount, the set being no more than Carsen’s trade-mark box, credited as a “set design” to Michael Levine and virtually identical to the one seen in the house seven years ago in Carsen’s Iphigénie en Tauride. There are the barest minimum of props to make sense of what’s said – a bed, a chair, a statue of the infant Christ to smash – although larger, no less significant architectural references to rooms, doors, altars and chapels all get ignored since the only variations of scale in the vast yawning space are achieved through Jean Kalman’s typically severe contre-jour onstage lighting. The old 1958 staging had the nuns mount the scaffold one by one and walk off into the wings at that raised height, followed by the most sickeningly graphic slice/thud sound notated in the score as each is guillotined. Here, the fifteen suddenly start a kind of lugubrious formation hand-calisthenics of the regrettable sort pioneered by Peter Sellars, looking like nothing so much as a drugged exercise class, each nun keeling over – far too late for the music – in agonising slo-mo and lying on her back in full light. Now, it’s not exactly that I want to see fifteen heads – sixteen when Blanche turns up, late but welcome – chopped off in full view (although Michael Grandage’s staging of Danton’s Death at the National Theatre a few years back managed it, to the audience’s absolute “How-in-the-hell-are-they-doing-that?” astonishment). Indeed, Marthe Keller’s altogether superior Strasbourg staging of the Poulenc managed it with lights alone (each nun picked out in her own overhead spotlight, suddenly extinguished, one-by-one, until the stage is pitch-black. Simple genius). But the footling, wafty nonsense practised here simply undermines the shocking power of the dramatic moment, which is then further – and unforgivably – muffled by someone’s preposterous decision to have the sound of the guillotine rendered from the ceiling’s dome, sounding like an electronically amplified version of a Harrier jump-jet trying to take off. Someone’s head should roll alright, and I don’t mean the nuns’.

I had imagined that after exactly seven years’ absence from the house, the orchestra would raise its game for Simon Rattle’s reappearance, not least in the service of a composer they play all the time for the endless ballets set to his music: but the sad truth is that there were numerous instances of rough playing in the brass – the second interlude in Act I saw both the trumpets and horns in squawky mode – and nowhere did Rattle achieve the quiet luminous glow he himself brought to Pelléas et MélisandeCarmélites’ sonic forbear – much less the extraordinary sense of grief transfigured that Michel Plasson obtained in the house in 1983 (a private recording of which I have, and have listened to recently, just in case you think distance might be lending too much enchantment). Frankly, from nearly all concerned, I was expecting more: indeed, much more; and for a work which can, even in concert, exert the most inexorable dramatic grip, I’m afraid this account left me utterly unmoved, partly because of the singing, partly the staging, partly the playing, all of which do have their individual moments, but which rarely either coincide or coalesce into a satisfying, unified whole.

Stephen Jay-Taylor

3 stars

(Photos: Stephen Cummiskey)

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