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ROH - Dialogues des Carmélites, June 2014

Ian Macmillan

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I was able to fulfil a theatrical ambition last night - namely, to see a live production of Francis Poulenc's opera, Dialogues des Carmélites.  I've been aware of it for years and heard it on record, but I have long felt I'd like to be in a theatre to experience the final scene in which, for those who don't know the work, a group of nuns is guillotined whist singing the Salve Regina, with the voices dropping out, one by one.  And after a night to sleep on it, I find myself really unable to find the words to capture my feelings at the time.  The theatricality of it all was breathtaking, and I was in no state to join in applause for some minutes after the final curtain.


Although the ROH first had it in 1958 within a year of its premiere, I believe it's been some thirty years since this work was last staged there.  This production by Robert Carsen was originally made for Dutch National Opera and puts the story, based on a true incident from Revolutionary France in 1794, across with very simple staging but with a large troupe of extras, very cleverly used to add emphasis and menace at particular moments.  (Where did they keep them?  The stage is completely bare to the back, with the wings we are accustomed to quite empty.)  Simon Rattle conducted, with the ROH Orchestra in superb form.  The cast was excellent and all praise, in particular, for Sally Matthews' Blanche de la Force and Anna Prohaska's Sister Constance.


Wonderful - really, quite wonderful - my thanks to all involved.

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I've always considered Dialogues des Carmélites one of the most powerful operas ever written, it ought by rights to be a staple of any rep, why it is so rarely performed is a mystery to me, though I will concede it is emotionally draining to watch.  The singing and orchestral playing were superb when I went last week, but I preferred the production the ENO did a few years ago where there was more of  a sense of time and place,


The final scene with the swish of the guillotine's blade punctuating the Salve Regina is so incredibly moving I can quite understand why you were unable to applaud,

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