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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.

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