Les Carmelites

Poulenc
Grange Park Opera
Grange Park

Hye-Youn Lee as Sister Blanche and Soraya Mafi as Sister Constance Credit: Robert Workman
Hye-Youn Lee as Sister Blanche Credit: Robert Workman
Soraya Mafi as Sister Constance, Fiona Murphy as Mme Lidoine the new Prioress, Olivia Ray as Sister Mathilde and Christopher Cull as Doctor Credit: Robert Workman

A night at Grange Park is intended to be more than a night at the opera. They provide a night out in black tie, the chance to picnic and dine in the exquisite grounds of The Grange and a superb production with some of the finest singers in the world. All of this takes place in the depths of the Hampshire countryside, in the dilapidated Grange Manor.

This plan proved a little trickier for the company on Saturday; picnickers were greeted with typically English summer wind and rain, topped off with a power cut to the estate. Installing a large generator and reshuffling picnic time to pre-show meant a rather more raucous crowd finally sat down for curtain up at 7:30PM, but were quickly sobered by Poulenc's harrowing drama.

With all of the re-jiggling, it’s perhaps excusable that act 1 took fifteen minutes to settle. The La Force men, Nicky Spence and Matthew Stiff, sing wonderfully but appear uncomfortable. The latter’s character was particularly wooden despite supposedly worrying for the fate of his unusually fearful daughter Blanche.

Once Blanche enters the nunnery, it’s a different story; Poulenc’s exquisite opera flourishes in the hands of sweet-voiced Soraya Mafi (Sister Constance) and Hye Youn Lee (Blanche). Discussing death and their service to God, their contrasting voices make an exquisite pair. The opera is an examination of fear and how humans can succumb or rise above this despised emotion. Blanche feels safer as a sister of the Carmelites, despite the growing unrest outside the convent as the Terror rages.

John Doyle’s (director) slower-paced and restrained blocking exudes a tranquility and calm in the covent, making the Prioress’s (brilliantly characterized by Anne Marie Owen) prolonged death appear more agonizing as she loses control writhing onstage. It’s a long first half to the opera though, and could have done with greater contrast in the first scene at the family house to balance the static staging.

Designer Liz Ascroft’s light colour palette emphasises the Carmelites' simple life: nuns clad in natural hues of cream and hessian brown matched with bare walls. Doyle’s staging is minimalistic, echoing Poulenc’s restrained vocal writing. Effectively placed chairs and a bench form the altar, a kitchen and laundry room.

The second half picks up pace as the mob starts braying for members of the Order’s lives. The nuns take a vow of martyrdom but Blanche flees afraid, hiding as a servant. When the executions of the nuns finally take place, Blanche is so moved by their stoic acceptance as they approach the gallows, she joins her sisters. Confident in her salvation, Blanche overcomes her anxiety and follows Constance to the guillotine, singing "Ave Maria".

This final section of the opera is heart-wrenching. Poulenc includes the thud of the guillotine over his tender sacred writing. Stephen Barlow conducts this large orchestra with triple woodwind, 4 horns, 2 harps, a piano and a guillotine. He ekes out the drama in Poulenc’s score, negotiating dramatic dynamic shifts without overwhelming the singers. The players passionate delivery showcases Poulenc’s compositional skill in this rarely-heard opera. Ocassionally, Barlow’s longer pauses between sections is detrimental to the momentum of the drama, not helped by misplacing the act 3 score.

This female-heavy cast outshines the men with no weak links. Sara Fulgoni’s (Mere Marie) powerful sonorous voice soars, and Soraya Mafi’s exqusite control and tender character proves she’s a young artist to watch. Hye Youn Lee (Blanche) returns to the Grange after rave reviews for her Elettra, and she doesn’t disappoint. She concocts the terrified but deeply spiritual character of Blanche alongside stellar vocals.

Overall this is a hauntingly beautiful production, sensitively staged, and thrusts young talented artists into the limelight. Battling the elements seems less of an ordeal when the cast are having their heads cut off.

Reviewer: Louise Lewis