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Dialogues des Carmélites
12 Sep 2011

Munich’s Dialogues des Carmélites

Dialogues des Carmélites is a magnificently anti-operatic opera.

Francis Poulenc: Dialogues des Carmélites

Marquis de la Force: Alain Vernhes; Blanche de la Force: Susan Gritton; Chevalier de la Force: Bernard Richter; Madame de Croissy: Sylvie Brunet; Madame idoine: Soile Isokoski; Mère Marie: Susanne Resmark; Sœur Constance: Hélène Guilmette; Mère Jeanne: Heike Grötzinger; Sœur Mathilde: Anaïk Morel. Bayerische Staatsoper. Conductor: Kent Nagano. Staged by: Dmitri Tcherniakov.

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It requires little in the way of vocal prowess or even acting ability, though a great Old Prioress (such as Rita Gorr, whom I once saw in Toronto) can make her death scene a thing of terrible beauty. Much of the musical and dramatic weight falls not on the characters or even the situations but on verbal formulae—sometimes poor ones (God tries not your strength but your weakness), sometimes ones worth pondering a little (what we call chance is just God’s logic), sometimes ones of some profundity (you might wind up dying someone else’s death by mistake—an idea that touches the heart of one of the mysteries of the faith, the divine surrogacy, Christ as vicar). Poulenc may have been more interested in these thoughts than in incising characters: they’re all prophetesses, though one, the Old Prioress,, is a sibyl as tyrant, and another, Sister Constance, is a sibyl as cheerleader, and the heroine, Sister Blanche, is a sibyl as nervous wreck. Indeed the opera has something in common with another religious opera, the Stein / Thomson Four Saints in Three Acts, with its interchangeable throng of saints—Stein said her inspiration was a series of photos of a novice turning into a nun, not far from the plot of Poulenc’s opera.

This production opens on a empty grayish-blue space, in which Blanche de la Force and her father and brother converse in modern clothes—here, the secular world is simply a desert. The convent, on the other hand, is a place, a screened bare room lit with electric lights strung from bare wires. The director, Dmitri Tcherniakov, springs his first major surprise here: there are no Christian emblems anywhere; and the ostentatiously dowdy modern dress, coupled with the fact that Poulenc’s text came from a screenplay that Georges Bernanos wrote in 1949, makes you wonder if there might be something about Jews and Nazis in the director’s mind. On the other hand, there are no Jewish emblems either.

It is fascinating to watch how this tease plays out. There are two occasions when it is impossible to ignore Christian visual elements: one is when the soldiers (dressed in generic police costumes, though with German lettering on their shoulder patches) order the nuns to doff their habits (Mother Marie strips to her bra at this point); and another when an effigy of the infant Jesus is passed around (a putto doll with a sunburst around his head, neither Christian nor unchristian).

The matter isn’t settled completely until the prison turns out to be full of cylinders of poison gas, a disappointingly obvious touch, I thought. And the final scene is comically outrageous, on the level of Ken Russell’s firing off a hydrogen bomb at the end of Madama Butterfly: Sister Blanche, far from joining the nuns in their Farewell Symphony Salve regina, as they’re executed one by one, breaks down the door, saves her gasping sisters from death, and perishes in an explosion. And yet: Poulenc borrowed the music for this intensely moving final scene from a strange orchestral piece he wrote in 1937, Deux marches et un intermède, in which the first piece is labeled “Marche” (1889) and contains a dainty quotation from The Nutcracker, and the second is labeled “Marche” (1937) and is all harrow. So, Poulenc may have considered his music pertinent to the difficult political situation of a harrowing age.

Kent Nagano’s conducting is even finer than in his audio recording, gesturally intent to the highest degree. None of the singing seemed to deserve special comment, except for Susan Gritton’s Blanche, by turns sweet-voiced and heady and hysterical, and yet with a sort of implacability in the background, like the calm at the center of Blanche’s storm.

Daniel Albright

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