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Seen and Heard Opera Review


Poulenc, The Carmelites: Soloists, English National Opera, Paul Daniel, conductor, Coliseum, 5.10.2005 (ED)



Catrin Wyn-Davies

Marquis de la Force

Ashley Holland

Chevalier de la Force

Peter Wedd

Madame de Croissy

Felicity Palmer

Madame Lidoine

Orla Boylan

Mother Marie

Josephine Barstow

Sister Constance

Sarah Tynan

Mother Jeanne

Jane Powell

Sister Mathilde

Anne Marie Gibbons

The Chaplain

Ryland Davies

First Commissioner

James Edwards

Second Commissioner

Roland Wood

First Officer

Toby Stafford-Allen


David Stephenson

Monsieur Javelinot

William Berger


Paul Daniel


Phyllida Lloyd


Anthony Ward


Joseph Machlis



For a composer who saw nothing wrong in “using other people’s chords” (as he put it) and a great many of whose works have an outward frivolity, The Carmelites remains unsurpassed in its inventiveness and ability to seamlessly fuse opposites. The composer himself identified the key one: fear and transference of grace, both of which the opera probes deeply in its sequence of short scenes.

For many, a plot that deals with the personal and religious issues of facing forced execution under a revolutionary regime might prove too much to take. Poulenc’s gift to Bernandos’ libretto (originally intended as a cinematic outline) was almost paradoxically to give it a lightness and space so the full impact gradually accumulates throughout the evening. For this to successfully come off in performance it needs sensitivity in terms of stage direction and conducting. In Phyllida Lloyd’s and Paul Daniel’s contributions this was never absent.


With simply textured mobile sets that aided the seamless move from scene to scene and emphasized the simplicity of the Carmelites world, Lloyd created a contrast to the episodes of outward terror which otherwise might have appeared over-short in duration. Daniel’s willingness to keep the dynamic sweep alertly lithe left few points for the tension to sag even slightly. His ear for sonority in the orchestration and attack in the playing of it showed Poulenc at his most serious. Just as crucial though was the recognition that silence too caries an important role in the work, and this was allowed to register dramatically.

For an opera that relies so heavily on its female cast the need for a strong leading quartet (Blanche, Sister Constance, Madame de Croissy and Mother Marie) is inescapable. ENO fielded a uniformly strong quartet, with each artist bringing out different aspects of their role. Catrin Wyn-Davies’ Blanche plumbed the depths of personal agony in a convincingly acted portrayal.  Sarah Tynan’s Constance contrasted nicely by bringing a certain youthful impetuousness and endearing warmth of tone.  The self-confessed warmth that Poulenc felt for Constance’s character came through too in the charming delivery of some of the scores most ravishing music. The other Sisters were well taken, mostly by members of the ENO Chorus. Their rousing singing of the Salve Regina as one by one they approached the scaffolding was powerful and highly touching.


Above all though it is the contributions of Felicity Palmer and Josephine Barstow that stick the longest in the mind, and most particularly that of Palmer. Her Madame de Croissy suggested so much with the voice and inflection of the text as to render negligible the imposed limitations on stage movement (chair-bound and bed-ridden). With absolute strength and conviction the character was in place.  Barstow demonstrated as much through her acting as her voice the sense of duty that the Carmelites should follow even in direst adversity.

The male roles though should not be completely overlooked. Ashley Holland’s Marquis suffered with the language slightly – for once not a problem common to the production – though he sang with decent tone.  Peter Wedd’s Chevalier was somewhat unvarying in tone, and in forte passages somewhat harsh. The opposite was the case with Ryland Davies’ keenly characterized Chaplain and David Stephenson’s Gaoler delivered with apt authority the rulings of the Revolutionary Tribunal that sealed the nuns’ fate.

Simplicity and directness make this a production of great strength and effectiveness that does both music and drama proud.  Fear is ever present and graphically portrayed at times, but stronger still is the strength found in personal and religious conviction that Bernandos and Poulenc sought so passionately to convey.



Evan Dickerson



All photographs © Stephen Vaughan


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