Nothing like starting a new year working on a new production of an opera I haven’t done before at a gorgeous Opera House where I’m debuting, and having all of this happening in my own country.
This is a great opera to work on. Having seen it a couple of years ago as a student when it was presented by the Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s Opera School, it’s one of those operas that you just can’t remain indifferent to. Whatever religious background you come from, it’s a incredibly powerful tale set during one of the most complex times of European History - The French Revolution - which also happens to have one of the most striking finales of all time.
(I won’t spoil it for you).
During the preparation of the roles I’m playing (and there are quite a few of them), I found out that, curiously enough, this opera almost didn’t become an opera! The libretto is based on a play by Georges Bernanos but the play only came into existence because the author initially came up with a screenplay for a movie that wasn’t considered good enough, prompting him to adapt it as a play. Poulenc then wrote the libretto himself following Barnanos’ scheme, although the work was initially commissioned as an Oratorio.
It also adds to the drama that this entire story is based on the true story of the Martyres de Compiègne which, not unlike the opera’s characters, were a group of Carmelite nuns who were guillotined in 1794 during the Reign of Terror (the part of the French Revolution when it all went south).
It’s interesting to think that such an important revolution which pretty much established Europe-wide access to so many of the liberties that we enjoy today, eventually decayed into a barbaric Extremist regime where those who somehow opposed the what was perceived as Liberty, Equality and Fraternity were ruthlessly murdered. It does make us think and it does underline the importance of being aware that even the most ideal and utopic political points of view can turn into something dangerous if they’re not constantly questioned. Also, at the one-year anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks, working in this piece really serves as a reminder of the human cost of so many of the liberties we enjoy today, especially free speech.
Such a powerful subject really drew the best out of Poulenc who composed an incredibly rich score where each nun has its own detailed psychological traits and, rather than presenting them as holy martyrs, Poulenc’s music and libretto really portray these nuns as very imperfect and three-dimensional human beings who find themselves in a very difficult situation making them constantly question not only the strength of their faith, but also the relationships they’ve established between themselves. The music and the melodic lines flow like a big accompanied recitative that although being tonal, also does present Poulenc’s typical harmonic twists.
For its italian premiere (in italian) in January 1957 at La Scala, Carmelites had an all-star cast including some of the greatest female singers of that time, including Virginia Zeani as Blanche, Leyla Gencer as Mme. Lidoine and Fiorenza Cossotto as Soeur Mathilde. Thankfully it was recorded and one can actually hear the premiere here.
In Lisbon, we're doing the French version (which premiered in June 1957 and has become the standard) with an all-Portuguese cast and for me, it's thrilling and an honour to be on stage with friends but also with some amazing people who I've seen on stage while I was a student in Portugal and whom I have long admired.
Rehearsal pictures will follow, but in the meantime, here are a few snippets into what Lisbon is looking like this time of the year. Also, feel free to browse my new website (and other blog posts) and do share your thoughts!