Dialogue des Carmelites – reviews of French opera

Jun 3, 2014

Opera about the fate of nuns in the French Revolution is 'poignantly beautiful', say critics

Stephen Cumminskey

What you need to know
Robert Carsen's popular production of Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites has opened at the Royal Opera Covent Garden. Francis Poulenc's 1956 opera about the terrible fate of Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution is based on a play by George Bernanos.

A young aristocratic girl joins the Carmelite nuns and hears a prophecy that she will die young, as the terror of the French Revolution worsens.

Carsen's production was first seen in Amsterdam in 1997 and is conducted here by Simon Rattle. Runs until 11 June.

What the critics like
This opera is "poignantly beautiful" and "gloriously sung", says Richard Morrison in The Times. Poulenc's score is imbued with the sensuality of Ravel and the sharp contours of Stravinsky and in the hands of Rattle it is riveting.

Carsen's well-travelled production "comes to the Royal Opera with freshness intact", says Andrew Clark in the Financial Times. This radiant account conducted by Rattle makes for a strangely uplifting evening.

Poulenc's opera is a true one-off, an uneasy mixture of the sensual and the spiritual that leaves the audience "with a lump in the throat", says Erica Jeal in The Guardian. Carsen arranges the action sparsely, stylishly and at times stunningly and the wide-eyed harmonies sound beautiful.

What they don't like
"The music smells of incense even in a production as scrubbed and minimalist and generally antibacterial as Robert Carsen's," says Fiona Maddocks in The Observer. But this staging loses intensity by concentrating on the metaphysical rather than the physical, and flattening the character relationships on the empty vastness of the stage.

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