Olivier Py’s Dialogues des Carmélites in Caen

Word had got around that Olivier Py’s production of Dialogues des Carmélites originally mounted at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 2013, preserved for posterity on a DVD and recently revived, was not to be missed. Rumours of this kind are generally reliable and so it proved to be when I caught a performance in Caen.  The principal merits of Py’s approach were integrity and total integration. Imbued with the spirit of the Poulenc/Bernanos work, it maintained throughout, with carefully controlled movements and interplay between the characters, a serious, sober focus on the power but also the limits and consequences of religious fervour. There was no extraneous stage business and therefore nothing to loosen the grip on the audience’s attention.

Thanks to the contribution of the designer Pierre-André Weitz and the lighting of Bertrand Killy, it was also a triumph of scenographic art. Played for the most part on a bare stage within a black box, with only the nuns’ habits and a few symbolic props to break up the abstraction, the visual dimension added to the intensity of the drama. Then when the revolutionary forces entered and despoiled the convent, its contents and inhabitants, the scene erupted with some extraordinary images: the building collapsing, as it were, into the air; the Carmelites running in all directions clinging on to their religious symbols. All cohered to provide a compelling vision of a world torn between believers and non-believers.

Musically the performance was in the safe hands of Jérémie Rhorer and the Orchestre National de France. After the first act, I would have described his interpretation as predominantly introspective. Avoiding any trace of exhibitionism, the conductor appeared to allow the pulse of Poulenc’s masterly score itself to propel the action so that the orchestral music seemed to belong totally to it and the vocal dialogues. Then in the second half, as the tension mounted, the Carmelites having to confront the external world, so Rhorer released his instrumental forces and the result was a passionate climax to the piece.

A stellar cast had been assembled for the revival. Sadly, Patricia Petitbon’s husband had died during the previous week and so the central role of Blanche de la Force was at short notice assigned to the much less experienced soprano Élodie Hache.  Dramatically she was very assured and if vocally she was a little stretched in some of her emotional outbursts, this was a small price to pay for a most creditable performance.  Sophie Koch made much of Mère Marie, her firm mezzo communicating a distancing, almost cynical, doubt of the aspirations for martyrdom.  Veronique Gens was a slightly hard-edged Madame Lidoine, but predictably Anne Sofie von Otter’s painful deathbed revelation of Madame de Croissy’s vacillating convictions went straight to the heart. Among the other soloists, both Sabine Devielhe as a pert beautifully sung Soeur Constance and Stanislas de Barbeyrac, who offered a sturdy account of her brother, the Chevalier, made a strong impression.

But this was not an evening to comment unduly on individual performances, for the whole was considerably greater than the sum of its parts