This was a truly thrilling night with Poulenc being the overall winner. John Doyle came up with a refreshingly straightforward narration of the story. No silly gimmicks no transpositions of location or time. His assured hand gives the impression of a director that respects and trusts the material. Poulenc’s bleak and outrageously involving world comes to life in all its gritty detail, a grand guignol spectacle in all but name. The development of characters through the duration and the single very versatile set was a stroke of genius.
He effectively used the narrative and musical structure of the piece to divide the action. Every break between scenes was cherished, every prelude used to reset the stage without dropping the curtain and fragmenting the narrative. The set even remained visible during the long interval and before the start of Act Three.
The setting is a non descript buff rough plastered space with built-in seating on the left and a deeply-set and lit passageway on the right. Above a slash across the wall, seems to reference Le Corbusier’s window designs for the couple of notable churches he built. Large scale, single colour projections create the effect of windows for the jail scene and in the monastic surroundings cropped close ups of the crucified Christ. It is simple and very effective in suggesting the atmosphere.
The only props used are four candlesticks, a wooden plank, two chairs, fabric matching the beige/white colour of the nuns habits, two bunches of artificial lilies, a cooking pot (for Blanche’s stew in Act Three) and a cross. Out of those limited in number objects he managed to concoct beds, armchairs, altars and even kitchen units.
The ritualistic nature of the making up of each prop was a great foil for an opera that is all about belief. We had to believe a plank of wood resting on two chairs and some draped cloth was an altar. The leap was not that great and eased us all in a word of spartan existence and meditation.
Some of the directorial choices made for very moving stage pictures, like when Blanche is undressed stage right surrounded by the nuns. It created a sense of disquiet and emphasised that Blanche’s life was now in the control of her faith and the convent.
Above all what Doyle clearly instilled in his singers was a sense of place and the importance of eye contact. Particularly during duets, the stunning one between the (about to leave for abroad) Chevalier de la Force and his sister Blanche in the last act was made truly riveting by the slightly uneasy body language as they both sat at the back of the set and how they exchanged glances throughout. The direction favouring formed characters was most obvious on how the chirpy Sœur Constance is introduced as a slightly naughty, bright-eyed novice and becomes a grown person that would happily give her life to save the Prioress. In the finale her tenderness colours this most tragic scene.
The performances by the cast were from wonderful to spectacular, Hye-Youn Lee created a Blanche de la Force that wakes up from her spoilt life and wants to find peace away from the world, to a disturbed young woman who is traumatised by the killing of her father and the guilt of leaving him and the nuns in jail. When she finally arrived in the last tableaux she was shuttering in her simplicity. Vocally she was a good match for the part and did sing with great energy and heart melting beauty especially in her final duet with her brother.
Nicky Spence was a revelation, his Chevalier de la Force begins as the intermediary between the stolid father and his withdrawn sister. His affecting duet with Hye-Youn Lee was not just beautifully sang but also lived through by the singers. Every word mattered. This fairly small part does pack some great music for a young tenor and he seemed to be stretched to match the composer’s requirements in the most healthy way. It is wonderful to see a young singer develop and over the last three years he has come very far. The fairly pallid creature in Two Boys and a charming Billy Budd Novice has turned into a confident Tamino. And now a shining Chevalier in this most women dominated of all operas.
Anne-Marie Owens gave us a wonderful Madame de Croissy. Angry about her health failing her but also still capable of heart wrenching tenderness towards the younger nuns. The death scene is such a spectacular opportunity for a singer to shine and she definitely grasped the chance with both hands, it was very moving, realistic and accompanied by some great singing.
Fiona Murphy’s Madame Lidoine started off as a cautionary new entrant to the convent that grew in confidence and humanity till her final sacrifice under the guillotine with some seriously forceful singing making her mark in a rapidly changing environment where she is both the centre of reference for the other nuns and also a centre of doubting instability. All carried through with a facade of dignity and genuine stage charisma.
The Sœur Constance of Soraya Mafi (impressively still a masters student at the RCM) was a ball of energy with a fresh voice that created the necessary counterweight to the other singers with a disruptive but ultimately humanising effect. The emotional journey of the character and the maturation through the work is made evident without for a minute leaving behind the bright-eyed enthusiasm that made her so noticeable.
The singers with the smaller parts gave adequate support and a sense of coherence, menace and structure.
The greatest achievement of this production was the unwavering sense of seriousness and menacing threat throughout the duration. Even the pesky long interval did not come to shatter the atmosphere. Doyle and his cast supported by a very forceful reading by Stephen Barlow and the English Chamber Orchestra gave a devastating and thoughtfully grim reading, as it should be. The obviously felt discomfort in the auditorium and the final mix of disgust at the unfairness and seduction by the luminous beauty of the Salve Regina was as powerful an emotional a knock as in any opera. Poulenc’s quirky masterpiece should not make for an easy evening out at a country house opera and this was a thought-provoking presentation getting to the very musical and intellectual core of it. We were all haunted by the church bell motif that keeps being repeated like an otherworldly loop, mesmerising and disquieting.
It will be interesting to compare next year the luxuriously cast, Robert Carsen directed and Simon Rattle conducted version that hits the Royal Opera in late May 2014. The memory of this performance will linger in the memory for a very long while as a great example of imaginative staging and a substantial realisation of the composer’s heavy demands.
Curtain call video
Some tweets from the evening