Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites at Manchester’s RNCM

Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, with the dominance it gives to female singers, might seem to be a good choice for student productions since at the conservatoires today talented young male singers are less readily available. Yet the work also poses considerable challenges through the scale of its themes – death, faith, fear, loyalty, community, and its musical idiom, as well as the need to render its dramatic content plausible and coherent. It was, therefore, brave of the Royal Northern College of Music to undertake the challenge for its pre-Christmas show, particularly as the opera does not exactly provide seasonal fare.

And the performance justified the ambition in mounting it. The demands of Poulenc’s marvellous score were met, the students adapting well to its often  conversational style (the title of the piece is well chosen), though it has to be admitted that appreciation of this and, indeed, exposition of the plot was not assisted by the technical failure of the surtitle system during the first act. Throughout, the quality of individual singing and characterisation was high. I should pick out for special mention Pasquale Orchard for her extrovert, perky and full-voiced Constance, Georgia Ellis for the controlled passion and dignity of her Mère Marie and Molly Barker who, as Madame de Croissy, displayed an impressively powerful lower register as well as enacted a histrionic death scene which was truly terrifying. If the soprano of Yuliyah Shvarko has not yet fully developed and some of the lyrical outpourings were underpowered, her troubled, ambivalent Blanche de la Force was most convincing.  Among the men, the bright tenor of Andrew Terrafranca as her brother and the softer tones of Philip O’Connor as l’Aumônier both made their mark.

The College’s policy of engaging guests for the creative team is a good one. The two-level set of designer Anna Bonomelli worked well and director Orpha Phelan made imaginative use of the space, especially with her simple tableau for the execution scene. I am less enthusiastic about the decision to set the piece in a near-contemporary period with the French revolutionary forces becoming terrorist usurpers and carrying placards proclaiming that “God is Dead”.  I felt that the very specificity of modern clothes and gestures fought against an appreciation of the spirit of martyrdom and historical religious submission with which the opera deals. But others may not share this opinion.  In any event, driven by Andrew Greenwood’s passionate conducting and the total commitment of all the young performers, the searing quality of the drama came across in all its force.