My one previous live encounter with this work was a performance of excerpts (including the powerful final scene) in the final concert of the Edinburgh International Festival 2007. More recently I picked up the Chandos Opera in English recording. Both hearings made a strong impression on me, but I didn't expect to be so completely, overpoweringly gripped by last night's performance as I was.
Poulenc's work strikes me as remarkable. The orchestral writing may be often bare but it is captivating, and also allows Poulenc to use combinations of instrumental and volume build to powerful effect in the consistent racheting up of tension. The instrumental colour is telling, I was particularly struck by the interventions of piano and harp, and the soft playing demanded of the brass. Poulenc's vocal writing is remarkable in the way it gives such various characters to the principal roles while at the same time using the ensemble to create the community effect. All this builds with the intelligent libretto (also Poulenc's work) to produce a compelling, haunting exploration of the agonies of faith.
In advance, I'd feared that I might not get on with Robert Carsen's reportedly minimalist production. I've often loathed other minimalist stagings (Kosky's dismal double bill at EIF 2014 crept into the back of my mind). But here I never felt the staging needed anything else, even the final scene whose choreography is of the kind that has driven me to fury on other occasions here I found utterly convincing. The bare walls reinforce the sense of questing for faith which is such a central theme in text and music, as well as providing a telling commentary on the evolving nature of the nunnery – from sanctuary to prison. Even in the early scenes describing Blanche's novitiate it's impossible to forget that the massed ranks of the revolutionary populace are already waiting outside. Those massed ranks (including long term unemployed, prisoners and other members of the public) are altogether a brilliant device (and a notable instance of directorial inspiration – Poulenc's directions on the scale of the crowd being, as the programme notes, somewhat fuzzy). At the outset they grimly confront the audience, next they surround the de la Force drawing room. Their silent effecting of scene changes later combines with maintaining that same sense of mass threat, and finally they form grey walls sealing in the doomed nuns. The latter are also brilliantly effective as a singing/acting group – not just in the money moments such as the finale, but in the smallest of gestures for example when as one they veil and form a still grim backed wall during the confrontation between the Chevalier and Blanche. Credit in all this must also go to Jean Kalman who lights ends of scenes particularly with an eye to old, dark religious paintings and Philippe Giraudeau (movement).
All of this would falter were not the line up of soloists effective actors in what is a very exposed environment. The finest performance in an exceptional ensemble is that of Deborah Polaski as the old Prioress. This is one of those occasions when, whenever she's on stage, it is simply impossible not to watch her. Her death scene is unsurprisingly harrowing, particularly the searing moment when she commits Blanche to Mother Marie's care. At the outset I was a little uncertain about Sally Matthews's voice for Blanche, but as the evening continues she grows in stature and becomes completely compelling. Her desperation following her flight is especially striking. Anna Prohaska's Constance is commandingly sung and acted, providing some much needed light relief, Sophie Koch's Marie, at the other end of the spectrum, chilling in her certainty. Emma Bell as Madame Lidoine is another who one might wish had a slightly larger voice, but in the crucial scene where she accepts the burden of the vow of martyrdom she absolutely nailed it. One of the most haunting moments of the evening which brought tears to my eyes, was that scene when the nuns huddle in prison, bathed in light, and Lidoine gradually makes it completely clear why she, and not Mother Marie, has succeeded as Prioress. The nuns all reaching out to take one another's hands as they stare inwards towards her is one of those simple, but most telling, moments of movement. The supporting roles, including the veteran Thomas Allen as the Marquis de la Force, Yann Beuron as his son and Alan Oke as Father Confessor are all expertly taken.
In the pit Simon Rattle provides a magisterial reading of the score, knowing just when to drive the music home and how long to allow a pause, and drawing stunning playing from the Royal Opera House Orchestra. It is to be hoped that, when he leaves Berlin, we might see more of him in operatic repertoire in London.
In sum, this is the finest opera I have so far seen this year. It is one of those rare evenings when all the myriad elements that are required for opera successfully combine into a total, immersive, emotionally searing evening (and one where I was especially appreciative of the rare privilege of sitting in the Stalls). Two performances remain, if you have not already seen it or picked up a ticket get one now. Absolutely unmissable.