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DVD Review

Dialogues Des Carmélites
Opera in three Acts and Twelve Scenes
Blanche de la Force………… Anne Sophie Schmidt
Mère Marie de l'incarnation.. Hedwig Fassbender
Constance………………….. Patricia Petibon
Madame de Croissy………….Nadine Denize
Le Marquis de la Force…… Didier Henry
Le Chevalier de la Force….. Laurence Dale
Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg
Choeurs de l'Opéra National du Rhin
Conducted by Jan Latham-Koenig
ARTHAUS DVD 100 004 With subtitles in English, German and Dutch [149 mins]


The searing intensity of Poulenc's only full-length opera, Dialogues Des Carmelites (about a group of nuns who were executed, at the time of the French Revolution, as martyrs to their faith), may be, to some extent, a reflection of the turbulence the composer was experiencing in his personal life at the time (1953-56). Poulenc was concerned about his relationship with Lucien Roubert, worried that he might have a stomach cancer, and depressed by the funerary art and tombs he saw in Alexandria on a trip to Egypt which he had embarked on with distinct lack of enthusiasm. Added to all this, there were troubles about the stage rights to the Carmélites involving the heirs of the librettist, Georges Bernanos. They approved Poulenc's idea to adapt the work, but they were in no position to make a decision. Bernanos had written the work for a film based on a novel, The Last to the Scaffold, by a German writer, Gertrud von le Fort and the adaptation rights to the book had been bought by an American screenwriter, Emmet Lavery. The Bernanos family disliked the American intensely but, nevertheless, it was he who controlled the rights to the Carmélites. After much negotiation, permission was granted but Poulenc had to agree to have Lavery's name appear on every programme and on the printed score. On a more positive level, Father Griffin, a Carmélite priest from Dallas wrote to Poulenc and promised the encouragement of prayers by every Carmélite in America.

The opera is characteristic of Poulenc's return to Catholicism beginning in the '30s. The story centres around Blanche de la Force (who Poulenc regarded as a kindred spirit). Act I opens in the household of the Marquis de la Force. Since her mother's accidental death, Blanche has been oppressed by existential fears. After being terrified by a shadow on a wall, she persuades her concerned father and brother that she should become a Carmelite nun. But in Scene II in the office of the Carmel of Compiègne, Blanche has to persuade the Prioress Madame de Croissy who is suspicious of her motives, but she is admitted when she reveals the nun's name that she wants to adopt - 'Sister of Christ's Fear of Death'. Scene III is a dialogue between Blanche and the other cheerful young novice sister, Constance with whom she shares work. Constance is willing to sacrifice her life if it would save the dying Prioress. But Blanche's fear of death makes her shrink from such a thought. Anne-Sophie Schmidt as the neurotic yet essentially humble Blanche communicates her character's vulnerability and torment very well, her singing nervously rapid and humble. Patricia Petibon is a most appealing Constance. She radiates a serene spiritual beauty and her coloratura singing is angelic.

In Scene IV of Act I the First Prioress dies in one of the greatest dramatic moments of modern opera. Nadine Denize as the Prioress mesmerises in her crisis of faith, communicating her hysteria and terror with great emotional force while Poulenc's music counterbalances in solemnity and control. Act II, Scenes I and II, with an intermezzo, concern first the death watch for the Prioress which disturbs Blanche, who is still acutely afraid of death, so much that she deserts her watch and incurs the anger of Mother Maria; and then the choice of Madam Lidoine (Valérie Millot) instead of Mother Maria as the new Prioress. Millot's long monologue allows her the opportunity of displaying, to its best advantage, her dramatic soprano voice. The following nun's Ave Maria chorus is humble yet very affecting. In Scene III, Blanche's brother (an earnest and solicitous Laurence Dale) comes to plead in vain for Blanche to return to her father where she would be safe from the revolutionaries. In Scene IV the revolutionary commissioners announce the dissolution of the cloister.

In Act IV the sisters, stripped of their cloth, take an oath of martyrdom. Blanche flees to her father's house only to find he has been executed. Mother Maria gives her an address where she might find refuge. Hedwig Fassbender in the important linking role of Mother Maria beatifically communicates warmth and compassion and understanding. This final Act culminates in the mass execution of the nuns. As Constance, the last nun to be beheaded, walks to the scaffold, Blanche finds the courage to face death and walks out of the crowd to join her. The whole of this Opéra National du Rhin production has simplistic sets with discreetly lit, large, plain shadowy pillars giving a sense of church-like spaciousness and deep perspectives that seem to overwhelm adding something to Blanche's sense of paranoia. Simplicity is the key to the execution scene too. No scaffold, no block; the nuns stand in line across the stage to come forward either singly or in pairs to fall to the ground at the sound of a falling guillotine.

Jan Latham-Loenig leads the soloists, choirs and orchestra in a deeply moving performance and the detailed sound reveals all the richness of Poulenc's scoring including the dramatic Act III interlude music in which we have the opportunity of appreciating some of his inventive scoring for percussion utilising snare drum, tom-tom and wood block. A rewarding experience for the adventurous.

Ian Lace

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