25 OCTOBER 1963, Page 22

Only Playing


neatly summed up the But accompanying is all that Poulenc pretends to be doing. His music does have the play to give it substance. The result is thus a serious attempt at a type of musical theatre. It has none of the meretriciousness and air of musical slickness and insincerity which spoil Menotti's similarly unpretentious exercises in the play- with-music. Unlike Puccini's Suor Angelica, which stirs one at the first hearing and sickens one at the second, it continues quietly to im- press. Poulenc the composer of witty, brittle, piquantly nostalgic music, the joker of Les Six, here writes, towards the end of his life, a long work in a dim religious vein without any sense of unnaturalness.

The religious music is the most effective—for instance the new Prioress's address to her com- munity or her serene instructions in the gaol, under the guillotine's shadow; in such passages Poulenc's invention and craftsmanship, without aspiring to a vision of spiritual experience, achieve a beautiful mood of calm and order and conviction. The radiant simplicity of Sister Constance, the nun whose childlike faith irritates but in the end redeems the neurotic Blanche, is well conveyed.

Where the work fails, even on its own terms, is in its lifeless treatment of the clash between the Carmelites and the encroaching world.

Poulenc, at home at least as an observer in the convent, cannot even underline the realities of

the French Revolution. Above all the character

of Blanche herself, the aristocrat whose life has been fear-obsessed from the moment of her

traumatic birth in a carriage jostled by the mob, remains a cipher. By 'not giving her rounded musical substance (whether or not he attempted to do so), the composer has left a void at the heart of his opera. The central character becomes someone with whom it is impossible to sympa- thise, whose desperate clutching at religion is not made even psychologically interesting, and whose voluntary death is never more than a

negative step, a heroic pis-alter. The idea of

'the death of another' —by which the old Prioress, who died 'badly,' was 'given' Blanche's death so that Blanche 'might die at peace with

herself—is a gripping one, but the music does not incarnate it% In the end we cannot but judge

.The Carmelites by normal operatic standards, and by them find it wanting. Neverthless it was certainly worth a revival. The Wakhevitch- Wallmann production in the main wears ex- cellently, and the sound performance by a native cast is another useful contribution to the work of building a strong resident company.