Plenty of directors have shown that Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites can work shorn of its original French Revolutionary setting. The historical milieu it is set in is arguably less important than that a production displays a supposed place of safety and its inhabitants destroyed by an outside force. For Theater Aachen, Ute M Engelhardt has gone a stage further and represented the opera as a kind of contemporary psychological thriller in which Blanche de la Force is forced to face her fear of fear itself, her “peur de la peur”, and ultimately her fear of death.

Suzanne Jérosme (Blanche) and Irina Popova (Mère Marie) © Ludwig Koerfer
Suzanne Jérosme (Blanche) and Irina Popova (Mère Marie)
© Ludwig Koerfer

There was something almost Hitchcockian in the way she was shown from the start as being traumatised by her motherless childhood, with a younger Doppelgänger haunting her every move and the suggestion that Blanche sees Mère Marie as a latterday embodiment of her former nanny. Her father’s cocoon-like library is obviously no sanctuary from her fears and she sees joining the Carmelites as the safer option. But no sooner is she inducted than the outside threat is made evident as the convent’s solid walls prove no bar to abuse from the mob (what looked like a dead cat was thrown in to scare the nuns). The nature of the revolution itself goes unstated, but its brutality is made clear in the final, harrowing scene where in this case individual brutes from the crowd silenced each nun in turn with a hood over the head.

It was testament to the acting abilities of the chorus members, as much as to their singing, that the fear expressed on the nuns’ faces as they lined up to face the audience at the front of the stage to await their fate was palpable and believable. This was just one prime example of the general level of achievement in this performance and this production, one where characters were fully rounded and their humanity in the face of ordeal was vividly drawn.

Faustine De Monès (Sœur Constance) © Ludwig Koerfer
Faustine De Monès (Sœur Constance)
© Ludwig Koerfer

Theater Aachen cast many of the roles from within its ensemble, which only went to show what a strong body of singers it currently employs. Chief among them was the Blanche of Suzanne Jérosme, who captured all the young novice’s vulnerabilities and fears, and finally her moral strength, with singing of a refinement and nuance that expressed all these characteristics in abundance. As her brother, Chevalier de la Force, Alexey Sayapin sang eloquently if sounding a little Italianate for the context, but Irina Popova’s Mère Marie was sympathetic and emotionally engaged. Katharina Hagopian’s Madame Lidoine had exceptional vocal focus and Patricio Arroyo’s Chaplain was firmly sung.

Faustine De Monès (Sœur Constance) and Suzanne Jérosme (Blanche) © Ludwig Koerfer
Faustine De Monès (Sœur Constance) and Suzanne Jérosme (Blanche)
© Ludwig Koerfer

Among the guest singers, Andrew Finden’s Marquis de la Force impressed with his communication of the text and in conveying the character’s fatherly vulnerabilities. Faustine de Monès expertly charted Sœur Constance’s growth from innocence to maturity, and Katja Starke’s Old Prioress was vividly drawn, no more so than in her traumatic death scene. The smaller roles were all taken by members of the fine chorus.

Finally, it would be hard to better the richness of ensemble, rhythmic acuity and tonal allure that emerged from the Aachen Symphony Orchestra in the pit, with some especially notable playing from the many wind soloists, especially the cor anglais. On the basis of his conducting here, in full command of a searing theatrical experience, acting music director of Theater Aachen Justus Thorau earned every right to be given the post outright.

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