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Stephen Eddins, November 2010

Director Robert Carsen created this daringly unconventional but compelling version of Poulenc’s only full-length opera, Dialogues des Carmelites, for De Nederlandse Opera Amsterdam, but this 2004 performance features the Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala when the production was taken to Milan. Designer Michael Levine uses a bare stage with a minimum of props—a chair, a bed, a table, a few benches—and relies largely on the placement of the chorus and the striking lighting of Jean Kalman to define the spaces in which the opera is set. The play of light and darkness is an important organizing visual element, and Kalman occasionally achieves the gorgeous luminous subtlety of a Vermeer painting. The final scene makes the most radical departure from traditional productions of the opera. There’s no guillotine visible and the nuns don’t disappear from the stage one by one, but Carsen’s chilling handling of the scene is no less harrowing than the conventionally realistic approach. His stripped-down approach to the opera can work because the singers are also riveting actors; the community of the nuns is conveyed with such emotional honesty that it would be difficult not to be drawn into it. The singing is consistently of the highest quality. The most memorable performance is perhaps that of Anja Silja as the troubled first prioress, Madame de Croissy. Silja was only 64 when the recording was made, but she comes across as absolutely ancient, and it’s impossible to take your eyes off her. Her voice wouldn’t be described as beautiful (she has declared that vocal beauty is irrelevant in the roles she cares about) but it is inescapably commanding, even mesmerizing. As Madame Lidoine, her successor as prioress, Gwynne Geyer is a complete contrast—young and vibrant with both an earthy humor and serene spirituality. Her aria, “Mes filles, voilà que s’achève,” is one of the musical highlights of the performance. Barbara Dever is an unusually sympathetic Mère Marie and Laura Aikin is delightfully effervescent as Soeur Constance. Dagmar Schellenberger is vocally assured as Blanche, and she is entirely convincing in this emotionally complex role. The men’s roles are minimal in comparison with the women’s, but Mario Bolognesi stands out for the naturalness of his singing and acting as the Father Confessor. Muti’s pacing is superb and he brings out the inherent drama of the understated score. His reading is incisive and precise but the sound he draws from the orchestra is always rich and warm. This beautifully sung and acted version should be a must-see for anyone who loves the opera and would make a gripping introduction for anyone new to it.

Simon Thompson
MusicWeb International, June 2009

Don Pasquale is the gem of the set, magnificent to look at and to listen to.  Like the others, the production is safely traditional, but with some lovely touches.  The costumes are well realised and the scene changes are managed with outstanding skill, down to the scene in the kitchen with the hilarious servants poring over their steaming pots, strings of sausages dangling from the ceiling.  The singing is really outstanding, each artist inhabiting their role and drawing good acting as well as great singing.  Feruccio Furlanetto dazzles in the title role.  In this country we are more used to him in serious roles like Verdi’s Fiesco or Philip II and it is easy to forget that he cut his teeth as a buffo baritone.  Seeing him here marks him out as one of the true greats in this repertoire.  He is comical in expression and quite marvellous in the quick-fire patter numbers, but there is an overarching authority and even sympathy to his role so that this Pasquale is not a ridiculous, bumbling oaf but a three-dimensional character with feelings.  Norina’s slap in the first scene of Act 2 is a real turning point, after which he seems truly humbled.  Focile herself is a close-to-perfect Norina.  Her bright, clear soprano is ideally suited to the register and she masters the coquettish style that makes her so winning in her first aria.  She isn’t averse to portraying Norina’s cruel side either, particularly as she takes over the household in Act 2.  Lucio Gallo is a roguish, appealing Malatesta with an exciting, virile baritone that oozes tongue-in-cheek humour in a very winning way.  Likewise, Gregory Kunde is a revelation as Ernesto: his warm, honeyed tone marks him out as one of the most mellifluous of bel canto tenors, providing a uniquely distinctive contribution to the ensemble passages.  He turns on the pathos for his lament at the start of Act 2, but is all sensuous abandon in Act 3.  In fact, the garden scene is the highlight of the performance: Com’é gentil is beautifully smooth, drifting in from a well-placed acoustic, and the two lovers’ voices blend delightfully in Tornami a dir.  The ensembles crackle along delightfully and Muti’s control of the orchestra is flexible and warm rather than dictatorial.

This Manon Lescaut is—I presume—the same performance released on CD by Deutsche Grammophon.  It was not well received when it was released, but I found this performance very enjoyable and it scores above the CD on several accounts.  For one thing the CD was criticised for its poor balance which favours the singers while drowning out the orchestra, but that is broadly solved with DTS sound.  Furthermore Liliana Cavani’s production is a delight to look at, solidly traditional with sumptuous sets and period costumes.  Geronte’s house in Act 2 is a feast of Baroque furniture and fashion, while Act 3 is presided over by an enormous hulk of a prison ship.  This lack of “interpretation” is quite refreshing, and I really enjoyed the performances too.  True, Maria Guleghina’s massive voice is rather short on vulnerability, and during Act 1 it sounds as if the part is being sung by a trainee Isolde, but she rises to the drama of the great duet in Act 2, and I found her very moving in the death scene.  Similarly, Cura will get few marks for subtlety, but he scores high on romantic ardour.  His dark tenor is quite well suited to the part of Des Grieux, particularly during his reproaches in Act 2, and his performance in the Act 3 roll call scene is storming.  Lucio Gallo, always excellent, is a beautiful sounding but roguish Lescaut who you clearly wouldn’t trust an inch, and Luigi Roni’s Geronte is quietly malicious.  The smaller roles, especially the cameos of Act 2, are all taken very well.  The orchestral playing is top notch too and Muti seldom takes his foot off the pedal: the climaxes in Act 4 sound positively nuclear!  This may not stand up to some of the great performances on CD, but don’t dismiss it out of hand as there is plenty on the DVD to enjoy and a great deal that is very valuable indeed.

The performance of Carmelites is significant and very strong without quite being great.  The opera was premiered at La Scala in 1957 in Italian and Robert Carsen’s 2004 production is clearly set in the revolutionary period while also managing to hint at abstraction.  Costumes are traditional and there is no scenery whatever: instead each setting is suggested with a few subtly placed items of furniture, though the sparseness definitely lends raw muscle to the most powerful scenes, such as the death of the old Prioress—on a camp bed surrounded by a circle of prostrate sisters. It also applies to the final execution with nuns dressed in white, dancing symbolically, cut down one by one by the invisible blade.  There are some very striking images too, such as the line of black-veiled nuns that divides the stage in two for Blanche’s Act 2 meeting with her brother, so visually there are no complaints and plenty of things to praise.  On the whole the ensemble of singers is very good indeed.  The nuns blend beautifully, and in the corps there is no stand-out, which is quite appropriate given the context.  Mother Marie and Madame Lidoine radiate authority in quite different ways, but the standout performance is Laura Aikin’s Sister Constance who sings with rapt, visionary passion and simple beauty.  She has great acting to match.  Great acting is also the chief virtue of Anja Silja’s performance as the Old Prioress.  She commands the stage with an adamantine presence from the moment she walks on stage until the final throes of her agonising death scene.  In 2004 the voice still had some heft—something sadly missing from her recent turn as the witch in Covent Garden’s Hansel and Gretel— and a good deal of secure vocal tone. That said, she was in her decline, as evidenced by some slightly shaky top notes and an unpleasant shrillness that runs throughout her register.  Dagmar Schellenberger’s Blanche is, alas, also rather shrill.  She has the measure of the character’s insecurity and, often, blind panic, but she cannot quite connect with her serenity and the beauty of much of the writing.  Her appearance in the final scene was fine, but there was none of the exaltation that this moment should surely induce.  Muti conducts like he is trying to set off a bomb under the score: the climaxes are thrustful and exciting while some of the more mellow moments sound distinctly un-French.  Still, I enjoyed this disc a lot and it’s definitely one to set alongside Nagano’s fantastic CD recording from Lyon.

So some good performances in good surround sound at a very attractive price.  A good choice if you want any of these operas, and it’s cheaper than purchasing them all separately.

Richard Lawrence
Classic FM, October 2007

Poulenc's moving opera about the martyrdom of a group of nuns during the French Revolution was first performed at La Scala forces but at a different theatre, in a production from the Netherlands Opera. On an almost bare stage, Robert Carsen directs a fine team of singing-actresses. A motionless camera captures Anja Silja's death scene in all its horror. As the new Prioress, Gwynne Geyer is authoritative, and Dagmar Schellenberger acutely expresses both the timidity and the courage of novice Blanhce. Fine conducting from Muti; but it's the image of the nuns gazing heavenwards after hearing their death sentence that lingers in the memory.

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