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Poulenc Dialogues des Carmélites Soloists, Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra/Jan Latham-Koenig, RCM, Friday, July 2nd, 2004 (CC)


Dialogues des Carmélites is a tremendously powerful operatic experience. It is most famous, perhaps, for the coup de théâtre with which it closes - the Carmelite nuns of the title are guillotined, one by one, while reciting the Salve Regina. But the fact remains that inspiration is uniform throughout the work, something that came across strongly in this superb realisation by the Benjamin Britten International Opera School at the Royal College of Music. The collegeís small theatre added intimacy to proceedings while simultaneously enabling emotions to register very effectively.


Carmelites was written between 1953 and 1956. It centres on the concept and difficulties of faith in the most pressing of circumstances, especially around the issue of martyrdom. Poulencís identification with his problematic subject led to an almost obsessive compositional approach, and his belief in the power of his subject comes across strongly throughout the score.


Under Jude Kellyís direction and with Michael Valeís simple, often minimal sets, the plight of the Carmelite nuns and the religious crises of the operaís major character, Blanche de la Force, took on huge emotive force. One small caveat: the nuns moved to modern dress for the prison scenes of Act III (Scene 3 onwards), an effect that did not totally convince and, indeed, jarred somewhat.


All credit to the multi-national cast for singing in such convincing French (the performance was surtitled). Swedish soprano Klara Ek took the part of Blanche on this occasion (the role was shared in the run with Martene Grimson). Ek has a light voice that suited the part of the young girl turned nun well, and her pitching was superb. As if that were not enough, at times the voice could be positively luminous. She acted the part well, too, bringing impetuous, yet impressionable, youth to her portrayal and, in the end, great strength.


Sister Constance plays an important part as Blancheís friend and confidante. Another Swede, Malin Christensson, did the honours and was magnificently confident. Her voice acted as the perfect foil for Blancheís (as could be heard particularly in the duet in Act II).


Of the other singers, Mother Marie (Australian Katrina Waters) could have done with more projection (yet she had all the requisite stage presence) and New Zealander Ana James as the New Prioress similarly could have been stronger. Thomas Walker (Chevalier) sang with real power and was the best of the few male roles. Claire Turnerís Old Prioress came across as well as a young singer impersonating the dying aged can be expected to.


Jan Latham-Loenig (who himself passed through the Royal College) paced the opera expertly throughout and drew generally excellent playing from his student orchestra. His reputation in the French repertoire is well-established, and the present occasion served as confirmation of this (try his superb recording of Ibertís Persée et Andromède with Strasbourg forces on Avie AV0008). Note also that his interpretation of Carmélites is available on DVD (see recommendations below).


Colin Clarke


Further Listening


Recording: Soloists, Paris Opéra Chorus and Orchestra/Dervaux. EMI Great Recordings of the Century 562 751-2


DVD: Soloists, Orchestra Philharmonique de Strasbourg/Jan Latham-Koenig. Arthaus 100 004


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