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James A. Altena
Fanfare, November 2010

Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is my favorite 20th-century opera (elastically defining “20th-century opera” as anything subsequent to Turandot, both chronologically and stylistically). From multiple performances I have heard on recordings and attended in concert and at the opera house, I have deduced two very simple principles regarding it. First, even with an excellent vocal cast, a performance succeeds or fails with the final scene. Second, any stage performance that shows the nuns dying on stage is necessarily a grotesque failure; the horror of the guillotine is too great to portray visually, and already is perfectly captured aurally by Poulenc’s score. Every effective production has the nuns walk off stage one by one to the searing sound of the descending blade. (The Met’s staging is absolutely perfect—can’t someone please, please get the telecast of April 4, 1987, commercially released?) Misfires I have seen in person and on video include having the nuns lie down on the stage and stretch out their limbs in the shape of a cross (symbolically well intentioned but clumsy and ineffective); clasp their hands and swing their arms in symbolic representation of the guillotine blade (ludicrously appearing instead to swing imaginary golf clubs); or simply collapse in a heap, with faces contorted into idiotic expressions intended to express pain and horror.

The aforementioned failures include all of the previously released performances on DVD. An Arthaus DVD of a 1999 Strasbourg production, conducted by Jan Latham-Koenig (the collapse-in-a-heap approach, along with wretched sets and costumes) is vocally undistinguished, despite a cast including Nadine Denize and Brigitte Fassbaender. The La Scala production conducted by Riccardo Muti, reviewed by Joel Kasow in Fanfare 33:1 (I concur with both his praise for the singers and panning of the staging) features the risible imaginary golf club swing among other infelicities. A Kultur issue from a 1984 production in Sydney is sung in English and features a vocally superannuated Joan Sutherland as Madame Lidoine. (Though Poulenc himself advocated that the opera be sung in translation to suit wherever it is staged, I do not see much point in buying a recording in a language other than the French original.) CD recordings other than the original and superb 1957 EMI version led by Pierre Dervaux have likewise been wanting. Kasow negatively reviewed the CD recordings led by Kent Nagano on Virgin Classics and Paul Daniel (sung in English translation) on Chandos. The Nagano recording (which includes a brief spoken scene that is normally cut) is almost competitive with the Dervaux until the finale, when it suddenly collapses like a bad soufflé due to a complete lack of dramatic tension.

Where then does this new release fall in the spectrum? Visually, still not fully satisfying, but superior to the competition; vocally, afflicted by one severe flaw. As with virtually all productions, it uses minimalist rather than realistic stage sets, an approach that works well considering the highly cerebral, theological nature of the libretto. The basic backdrop to most scenes consists of walls with alternating wide, bright light and dark blue stripes, a pattern I find a bit oppressive and distracting visually, but not offensive. Its function becomes more important in the crucial final scene, where it is adapted to segregate the nuns into separate cells, while a similarly divided frame descends like prison bars at the front of the stage. As the nuns step forward one by one, solid panels descend in their respective slots, symbolically cutting off the victims by both decapitation and physical separation; at the end, a black wall of death is formed that conceals the entire stage. While not as effective and moving for me as my preferred alternative, I found it intelligently conceived and (pun intended) executed. Thankfully, the nuns are clad in traditional habits instead of some piece of sartorial imbecility dreamed up by a designer eager to prove avant-garde credentials. The stage direction and acting are likewise generally acceptable but occasionally marred by exaggeration; Sister Constance is initially too flighty, Madame de Croissy and Mother Marie both too severe, Mother Lidoine a little too folksy, etc.

As for the singing, Alexia Voulgaridou is a fine Blanche vocally, but it is rather disconcerting to see her close-up, as facial age lines and crow’s feet around the eyes make her visually implausible in the opening scenes (subsequently putting on a full habit hides a multitude of sins). Kathryn Harris is effective as Madame de Croissy, though her voice is a bit hard-edged in timbre. Jana Büchner and Anne Schwanewilms ably fulfill their roles as Sister Constance and Madame Lidoine. Unfortunately, the entire production is spoiled by the absolutely unlistenable, squally hooting of Gabriele Schnaut as Mother Marie; her voice has a wobble that could trigger a quake on the San Andreas fault. Wolfgang Schöne as the Marquis is now in a badly deteriorated state, making for an aurally painful opening scene. Nikolai Schukoff is a merely adequate Chevalier, but special mention must be made of tenor Benjamin Hulett, who offers far and away the best-sung Chaplain I have ever heard; let’s hope that he moves on soon to bigger roles and wider recognition.

If you must have Dialogues on a commercially issued DVD, this is the best of an unsatisfactory lot; otherwise, stick with the classic EMI set on CD. For those willing to explore private-issue performances, the Berkshire Record Outlet offers on its in-house Encore DVD label a 1998 telecast (with embedded Japanese subtitles) of a Tokyo production conducted by Seiji Ozawa, with an excellent vocal cast featuring Patricia Racette, Marie Devellereau, Christine Goerke, Felicity Palmer, Beth Clayton, and William Burden. Conceptually, the staging is comparable to the Met production, with an almost equally moving finale. Maddeningly, while the video portion of my copy is fine, the audio side is afflicted with audible crackle from an unstable broadcast signal throughout the first act. If you can tolerate that, it’s well worth acquiring.

Joe Banno
The Classical Review, October 2010

POULENC, F.: Dialogues des Carmelites (Hamburg State Opera, 2008) (NTSC) 101493
POULENC, F.: Dialogues des Carmelites (Hamburg State Opera, 2008) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 101494

Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is a gift for sopranos and mezzos of ample vocal and dramatic range. Focusing on the State-ordered repression and eventual execution of a convent of Carmelite sisters during the French Revolution, it calls for few male singers. Any company producing the piece must boast a reliable pool of talented women to pull-off the five most challenging and substantial nuns’ roles.

The 2008 Hamburg State Opera production fields a generally strong cast of singing-actresses—not least soprano Alexia Voulgaridou as Blanche, the daughter of French aristocrats whose anxiety over the increasing dangers in Paris and near-rabid Christian faith drive her to the Carmelite convent and her eventual doom. Voulgaridou’s skittish, haunted portrayal is riveting, and she communicates volumes with warm, luminous tone and urgently communicative phrasing. Too bad, then, that her washed-out make-up and the cameras’ unforgiving close-ups make her, rather unhelpfully, look old enough to be Blanche’s mother.

Soprano Anne Schwanewilms brings a tangy middle-register and a creamy, radiantly expansive upper voice to the role of Madame Lidoine, the convent’s insightful and level-headed mother-superior. There’s a mix of elegance and otherworldly peace to her work here that seems right-on-the-money, and she’s perceptive with the text. The smaller but significant role of the young novice, Sister Constance, is delivered with freshness and bell-like brightness of tone by soprano Jana Büchner, who also makes much of the role’s acting opportunities.

The standout performance from a dramatic point-of-view, though, comes from Kathryn Harries as Lidoine’s predecessor, the terminally ill Mother Superior, Madame de Croissy. Bringing out the dying woman’s hard-won wisdom and benevolence toward her charges, Harries spares us nothing in her long deathbed scene. In a harrowing depiction of de Croissy’s advancing pain—and with a clinical detail that at times is almost unwatchably intense—the mezzo creates a stunningly lived-in characterization that lingers in the memory. If her voice these days tends to swing on rusty hinges, there’s enough commanding chest-voice and some thrilling high notes still there to compensate.

Would that something listenable was left of soprano Gabriele Schnaut’s voice, as Mother Marie. Unfortunately, despite her steel-spined presence and some nicely gauged hauteur in the role, the flapping vibrato and paint-peeling high-notes this sometime Brünnhilde produces make the large quantity of music she sings a trial. The smaller, men’s roles are well-taken, with special kudos going to tenor Nikolai Schukoff for his fine acting and appealingly callow voice as Blanche’s brother, the Chevalier. Conductor Simone Young draws out all the influences of Stravinsky and Weill in the trenchant, orchestral scene-preludes, but shows a delicate hand in distilling the perfumed Impressionism of Poulenc’s quieter scoring as well.

Camera-work is challenged by a fixed scrim across the proscenium, which registers as a soft-focus cheesecloth in long shots and as a checkered pattern across faces in tighter shots. But stage-director Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s arresting blend of naturalistic acting and starkly rendered stage-pictures is well captured—as are Andrea Schmidt-Futterer’s sensibly updated 1930’s Fascist costumes, Olaf Freeze’s boldly graphic lighting, and the stunningly modernist vertical lines of Raimund Bauer’s set.

The final moments of the opera, in which the nun’s chorus is reduced one voice at a time with each guillotine stroke, is brilliantly handled onstage, with portal after portal slamming shut until the proscenium arch is walled-over. It’s a visual conceit that does full justice to one of the most inspired moments in 20th-century opera.

John Yohalem
Opera News, October 2010

There is no love story in Dialogues des Carmélites. There are no vocal showpieces. The score is accessible but severe. Voices are seldom raised in passion; they converse or declaim—or they pray. Yet it has become the most beloved French opera of the past hundred years, successful the world over, in small houses and in big ones. Its reserved, low-key theatricality, moving at a steady pace, gathering its emotional force to a tragic but dignified climax with an air of ritual sacrifice, seldom fails to thrill. Those of us who have seen it live feel we have attended a spiritual drama: human beings yield up their lives to an implacable tyranny and, by so doing, shame it and undermine its claims to moral authority. It is, perhaps, the story of its century, of all individuals facing the arrogant state.

Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s austere staging from Hamburg is set before a wall of simple blue columns that can become a nave, a cloister, a shadowy street, a row of guillotines. Simple alterations of the light achieve much: the reserved dimness of the priory is broken by the shock of the revolutionary mob (heard but not seen). A single high window and the shadow of bars on the floor give us a prison cell the night before execution. It might seem unnecessary for Lehnhoff to grind the point of the story home by costuming it in the age of Hitler (incidentally also the era of the original Gertrud von le Fort novel on which the opera is based), but this allows him to strip the nuns of their habits, whereupon they resemble shaven concentration-camp victims. In the final procession, as the blades fall, sixteen narrow doorways become, one by one, blank black panels, each one concealing its victim.

This production is as absorbing musically as it is theatrically. Conductor Simone Young scants neither the delicate scoring of the more domestic scenes nor the shocking return of the belligerent motifs associated with the disorderly outside world. Poulenc, faced with an almost entirely female cast, cannily set his drama for contrasting types of female voice, not merely ranges: Blanche, the fearful heroine, is a full-bodied soprano dipping toward mezzo range; Constance, her less neurotic friend, is a bright-voiced high soprano; the New Prioress is a lyric prima donna with the full resources of such a figure; the Old Prioress, dying in pain and trouble, ranges over the lower, meatier portions of the female voice; and the enigmatic figure of Mère Marie is the sort of mezzo that is at once stern and motherly.

The singers in Hamburg were, on the whole, well chosen to make the story absorbing in its progress and balance. Anne Schwanewilms brings a serene flavor to the New Prioress, her ethereal top sounding as a rebuke to the murkier concerns of other characters. Kathryn Harries is effective in her turbulent despair as the Old Prioress. Jana Büchner has the carefree quality for Constance, and Alexia Voulgaridou is a striking, tormented Blanche...this is a first-rate presentation of this great opera.

Charles H Parsons
American Record Guide, September 2010

This 2008 performance from Hamburg is makes a good show, particularly with its final scene. Set designer Raimund Bauer has constructed a single decor, a black box set with white floor and a series of 20 or so tall black panels across the back of the stage that open to reveal a blazing white background. Desk, bed, etc are wheeled on as needed. For the final scene (the execution by guillotine of the nuns), Bauer moves the panels to the front of the stage, open to reveal their white background. The chorus of people sings their wordless accompaniment from off stage. The nuns slowly advance downstage and at the appropriate time as indicated by the music, a black panel crashes down like a guillotine, cutting off the singer from view, until all is black except the blazing white light that Blanche enters for her own execution. It’s a remarkable and effective staging by Nikolaus Lehnhoff. Costumes by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer are a curious lot, appearing to be updated to late 19th Century (or is it early 20th?). Much of the lighting is low level, and darkness reigns. Yet sometimes, particularly in the later scenes when the nuns are clothed in ragged white undergowns, the camera picks them out in stark, stunning pictures that add to the emotion.

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