DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES
New Opera Singapore
Last Friday (Aug 3)
Chang Tou Liang
New Opera Singapore (NOS) has done it again.
By mounting the Singapore premiere of Francis Poulenc's 1957 opera Dialogues Of The Carmelites (Dialogues Des Carmelites), it defied the conventions of what operas local companies should be presenting.
No Verdi, no Puccini, no Mozart, no worries.
NOS had Purcell, Britten and Monteverdi on its books, and has now added 20th century Frenchman Francis Poulenc to its list of successes.
In reality, Carmelites should not have been a great surprise, as it represented the last of the 20th century's great tonal operas, conceived during an era when serious composers were pursuing atonalism and an avant-garde agenda.
Its subject, the 1794 martyrdom of the Camelite order of Compiegne during the French Revolution's Great Terror, was also fertile for exploitation in musical drama.
Sung in English instead of French, directed by Kyongsu Kathy Han and conducted by Chan Wei Shing, this production was furthered by a very strong cast of principals as the ill-fated nuns. The protagonist Blanche (soprano Victoria Songwei Li) as aristocrat-turned-novice sparkled as she alternated between hope and fear, finally finding a resolution in extreme courage.
Beside her, Sister Constance (soprano Capucine Daumas) was a light-hearted and playful presence, the perfect foil.
The Mother Superiors were well contrasted: soprano Patricia Sands as the long-suffering and terminally-ill Madame de Croissy and soprano Jennifer Lien (fresh from her leading role in the other significant Poulenc opera La Voix Humaine) as the plain-speaking and more cheery Madame Lidoine. Between them, mezzo-soprano Rebecca Chellappah was a rock-steady Mother Marie, close confidante to the beleaguered ladies. Their voices rang well over the discreet orchestral manoeuvres from the pit.
Men had much smaller parts, including tenors Reuben Lai (Father Superior) and tenor Shaun Lee as Blanche's brother the Chevalier.
The touching scene between Blanche and the Chevalier came closest to a conventional operatic love duet, but had the former rebuffing the latter's pleas to flee the oncoming crisis.
The men's black suits also contrasted markedly against the light pastel nuns' habits and, ultimately, white, symbolising innocence and purity.
The sets in all three acts by Allister Towndrow were monochrome and starkly effective, with a series of screens adding layers of dimensions. The shadow of the guillotine loomed ever so ominously over the First Act, but when the heart-wrenching final scene beckoned, there were to be no falling blades.
Execution by decapitation was depicted symbolically. With the chorus of nuns (including NOS artistic director Jeong Ae Ree in a cameo role) singing the poignant Salve Regina and each walking through the scaffold and towards oblivion, their voices diminished and decimated until there were only two. Blanche's final act of sacrifice with her sisters in faith could not have been better depicted.
This production marked yet another important landmark in the short history of New Opera Singapore. It produces only one opera a year, but making that count is what really matters.