Dialogues des Carmélites

I don’t usually blog about Opera unless it’s to do with a performance I’ve actually attended in person, but I couldn’t resist posting something about the live broadcast from the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden of Dialogues des Carmélites by Francis Poulenc that I heard last night on BBC Radio 3.

I’m basically a complete ignoramus when it comes to the music of Poulenc. With the exception of a few small chamber pieces of his that I’ve heard (and very much liked) I don’t know much about him as a composer at all. Last night’s performance however has inspired me to rectify that omission. To that end I’d be grateful of any recommendations through the comments box.

Anyway, back to Dialogues des Carmélites. This is based on the true story of the martyrdom of sixteen Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution. Not knowing what to expect I was completely stunned by the music, much more melodic than I had expected, and beautifully played by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle. There are so many references to other composers in this piece that my head was spinning, but the strongest influence I could hear was Giacomo Puccini. Indeed, at times it sounded more like Puccini than Puccini ever did! I was gripped by the whole performance, but the ending, with the nuns singing the Salve Regina as they walk one by one to the scaffold, the dread sound of the guillotine repeatedly falling was utterly horrific and utterly compelling. In fact it was such a powerful experience I was trembling at the finish. Perhaps the fact that it was an audio broadcast only made it even more intense, precisely because so much was left to the imagination. It wasn’t exactly easy listening, but as a piece of music drama it was a triumph.

The entire performance is available for the next seven days on the BBC iPlayer in High Definition sound via this link. If you make time to listen to it, I promise you won’t regret it – although the ending might give you nightmares!

Another thing worth mentioning was that this was the largest cast ever to appear on the stage of the Royal Opera House; no less than 167 people altogether. Among those involved were members of Streetwise Opera, a charitable organization quite new to me, which uses music to help homeless people make positive changes in their lives. This is such a brilliant idea that I sent a donation to support their work. I urge you to do likewise.

5 Responses to “Dialogues des Carmélites”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    I’ve heard the ending sequence of Dialogues des Carmélites on the radio a few times. Is there not a danger that singing nuns queueing up to be beheaded is a bit surreal, or absurdist, even comical? Even an operatic send up of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony?

    • telescoper Says:

      Every Opera runs the risk of being surreal absurdist or comical. It goes with the territory…

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Yes, but there are usually limits to the absurdity. I suppose it’s the staging that determines how well the opera works, and that’s not usually apparent over the radio.

      • Isn’t the risk of absurdity essentially the definition of opera?

  2. Rylands Says:

    What about Poulenc’s Concert Champêtre?
    (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

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