On Opera

Fun with nuns

This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

So it seems — at least according to the recent Covent Garden production of Handel’s fairly ordinary 1737 opera Arminio — that it was not after all the epic slaughter of the Teutoburg forest that did for old Varus and his legions, but the random actions of a gang of teenage members of Arminio’s (the Germanic warlord Hermann’s) family, puffa-clad and with much flouncing, eye-rolling and sighing, that somehow settled those Romans’ hash. Ok, so it was a pretty stupid staging, but it was a nice reminder of opera’s attractively frivolous attitude towards history.

Now those inadvertent teen heroes — needy, neurotic, hormonal, wildly subjective, emotionally incontinent … do they remind you of anyone? Operatic characters are surely all teenagers at heart, denizens of Self-Pity City, with their mood-swings, extensive perorations about how they feel, hard-luck peeves, dime-turn switches from violent inceldom to maniacal, possessive attachment — plus their obvious addiction to online porn.
It makes you wonder how on earth opera has got away for so long with being considered a pastime worthy of adults. I suppose this is yet another gatekeepery aspect of the whole jamboree, those grouchy greyhairs in posh clothes so glowing with fantasy sophistication they don’t even notice that they’re basically watching Jackie: The Musical.

Composers, too, are a moody breed, their main leftover adolescent trait their attitude to God and religion, reliably both contemptuous and whingey. The standard operatic treatment of priests as avid touts for local Gestapos, wheedling pervs and commissionaires of human bonfires makes you lament the missed opportunities for English operas lampooning the buffoonish haut-bourgeois inbreeds of the CofE: that might have been fun.

Operas are overflowing with death, of course, but not actually about death, and Carmélites is not that different

Naturally, this is all grist to the mill of the high-end aesthetes who present themselves as the Pythias of the operation, interpreting its hidden messages for the proles. After a lifetime immersed in this angst, one’s colleagues display sensibilities apparently contracted from too-close contact with Tribune 4 Kidz, a pappyshow of gimlet-eyed Brechtery.

It is obligatory, naturally, to pour scorn on those few works that take God seriously, which is why nearly all arbiters of taste in opera will tell you that Francis Poulenc’s 1957 opera, Dialogues des Carmélites (coming up in June at Glyndebourne) is a perfectly dreadful piece. And indeed, it would seem cunningly designed to piss off the bien pensant with its cogent dramatising of theology, its non-satirical attitude to the nuns in question, the infuriatingly rational way it deals with the mysterious.

We meet the ladies just as the French Revolution is about to introduce its most persuasive instrument of political debate, and their titular chats revolve largely around the issue of martyrdom, and whether that’s a positive outcome — not, as it turns out, that they have a lot of choice in the matter.

Martyrdom seems to have lost a bit of its lustre now it’s been largely usurped by murderers, dupes and death-maniacs; a great blessing at least for contemporary directors who can now give these shaheed-seeking sisters a bit of a kicking for their obvious spiritual affinities with suicide-bombers.

If that feels a bit cheap, it does at least make a change from some mawkish and over-reverent stagings of the past. The big question with Barrie Kosky, the Aussie director running the Glyndebourne show, is whether this adept of ebullient camp will be able to resist giving the girls a big conga-line number as they queue for the guillotine: let’s hope not.

As usual, most people miss the point of this opera, getting strung out by its wacko doctrinal quirks like the “transference of grace”. The original playwright, Georges Bernanos, was an Action Français alumnus with some odd notions, and not the Pope, but the great achievement of the Parisian gadabout Poulenc — whose sudden access of piety here is also perceived as an affront to le bon goût — is through music to bring this unsexy text back to real opera.

The nuns’ conversations are conducted in a tuneful way that owes something to the seventeenth-century recitative of Claudio Monteverdi, but the strongest impression is of a sane version of the discursive style of Modest Mussorgsky, a lucid word-setting that paces the patiently-built paragraphs of the nuns’ disquisitions to a point where the sense of the music and the meaning become one.

Mussorgsky, likewise, wasn’t afraid of intellectual and spiritual gravity, though things usually devolve into ultraviolence. His Khovanschina of 1880 also features a group of death-bound religious, but where they are mad, obscurantist, apocalyptic, mystic and probably drunk, Poulenc’s nuns are clear-eyed and rational.
He even has a Russian-style holy fool, and though twittery little Sœur Constance is really very French, and a bit irritating, her perky babbling gets to the heart of things.

Operas are overflowing with death, of course, but not actually about death, and Carmélites is not that different. The timid heroine, Blanche, is crippled with fear but finds the strength to die by understanding how not to be terrified of living.

Like just about all operas, Dialogues considers how humans might deal with the inconvenient fact of mortality. In the end, there are many things worse than death, but this work, unlike 97 per cent of operas written since the Second World War, is not one of them.

Dialogues des Carmélites opens at Glyndebourne on June 10


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