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Dialogues des Carmelites / Francis Poulenc /
Bowling for Carmelites
By Neil McGowan
In Helikon Opera’s searing new production of “The Carmelites”, the nuns are “bowled” to death…

Only someone with a mind as sick as Dmitry Bertmann’s could devise a way of increasing the horror at the end of “Carmelites” – with a group of nuns going willingly to the guillotine during the French Revolution. I ought to say immediately that this production is extremely “classic”, and does not relocate the action in any other time or place.. for the most part. But instead of showing us the guillotine itself, Bertmann shows us the ascending staircase which leads to it – and as nuns disappear off the upper end, the officers of the Revolutionary Guard aim bowling-balls down an alley at skittles. As zany as this idea may sound, the reality is a nightmarish ending to some of the finest work to be seen on any opera stage anywhere. This is truly a “definitive” production of the work.

The Tulubieva/Nezhny designs and costumes work superbly, on this infamously tiny and ill-equipped stage. A simple descending staircase is clad to reveal only head-to-shoulders window-slot, which opens to reveal the Sisters, and whose opening forms the shape of the Crucifix. The nuns are simply and identically dressed – the Revolutionaries appear in metallicised pseudo-period dress, apparently smeared in blood. There are – apart from the bowling-alley – no gimmicks or tricks, this is simply marvellously-directed theatre, in which the interplay of characters, and the personal development of Sister Blanche are foremost.

Vladimir Ponkin conducts a hard-driven performance that counter poses singers against heavy slabs of sound – Poulenc’s orchestration is an unforgiving accompaniment for the vocalists, yet Ponkin finds enough respite for them. Seamless playing of the highest quality emerges – won’t someone please find funds for a proper orchestra-pit at Helikon?

For the Russian premier, Helikon come up with true “luxury casting”. Any who feared that Blanche is too low-set for Tatiana Kuinji soon put those fears aside, and her interpretation of the role is stunning. She socks-out the chest-voice passages with aplomb, and makes a credibly annoying and judgemental zealot. (Natasha Zagorinskaya, a heavier-set “dramatic”, sings the role at some performances).Outstanding in the cast is Ksenia Viaznikova as Madame de Croissy, the old Prioress – the death scene in which she curses God himself for making her die of cancer was terrifying in its dramatic intensity, and superlatively sung. In this production it’s strongly suggested that Mere Marie (Svetlana Rossiyskaya) is poisoning Madame de Croissy. Mere Marie not only escapes with the Priest (Anatoly Ponomarev) but is seduced by him too. Fine performances amongst the other nuns came from Alissa Gitsba as a serene and rational Prioress, and a heart-in-the-mouth performance from Marina Andreeva as the simplistic Sister Contance. Nikolai Dorozhkin (Chevalier de la Force) and Igor Tarasov (his father) complete a faultless cast, along with Dmitry Kalin’s powerful Commissar.

Bertmann spares no emotions – the nuns are ritually defiled before their execution by having their heads shaved (some live on stage), and the Producer has prevailed on almost his entire cast to shave their heads for real for the performance. So, the bowling… the guillotine-blade operates as a hatch-cover, and as it rises and falls, bowling-skittles appear behind it. The balls – are they the heads? – of the nuns come hurtling out of delivery-tube from another hatch. Gruesome, mesmerising, and phenomenal theatre. Bowling-alleys notwithstanding, the sight of the shaven nuns, stripped to their underwear, assisting each other up the slope to the gallows was the tear-jerker that hit home throughout the audience, and the curtain came down to tumultuous applause.

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