Dialogues des CarmÈlites from Hamburg

Nikolas Lehnhoff has devised a canny and imaginative strategy for making visual
and dramatic sense of this opera, so lacking (until the end) in overt
theatricality. Lehnhoff’s idea is to use a single set, unfurnished except
with the absolute minimum of props, a big box with broad blue and black
stripes, like gift wrapping seen from inside. The set is static, except that
the black verticals can be lifted; this spare action can sometimes have real
dramatic force. Both the house of Marquis de la Force and the convent are in
effect prisons, whose bars sometimes make themselves conspicuous. This is
appropriate to the police-state world of revolutionary France (and to Nazi
Germany, where Gertrud von le Fort wrote, in 1931, the novel on which
Bernanos’ play and Poulenc’s libretto are based). But there is more
to the prison theme than an allusion to a political situation: to the
religious, the whole earth is a kind of jail.

Lehnhoff makes good use of the physical properties of his set near the end
of act 2, where the screens raise and the convent is suddenly permeable to the
revolutionaries (costumed more like storm-troopers than like Jacobins); and at
the end of act 1, when, at the death of the old Prioress, the convent is
suddenly flooded with light, as if theological grace had itself descended. It
is a beautiful moment: silent nuns stand between the bars, like the array of
servants posed in MÈlisande’s death chamber at the end of Debussy’s
opera—the silent nuns foreshadow the arresting tableau in the execution
scene, where the screens fall down, like guillotines, or even pile-drivers, as
the nuns are beheaded one by one.

Still, the stage set, while good to think about, is still, too often, a
bore: and its austerity is false to this non-austere opera about austerity.
There are a few moments of overt gaiety, such as Sister Constance’s
dancing, but also touches of wild, even surreal humor in many strange corners:
in the first scene the Marquis remembers mob terror to a musical passage right
out of Poulenc’s surrealist skit Les mamelles de TirÈsias; and
the nice commissaire at the end of act 2 gets comical music of the sort Strauss
used for Aegisth in Elektra. These glints are also a manifestation,
from Poulenc’s point of view, of the Holy Ghost, but are not realized in
the relentless severity of this staging. T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the
, which Dialogues des CarmÈlites resembles in its
concentration on martyrdom as an act of self-surrender rather than an act of
self-aggrandisement, makes the low comedy that counterpoints the saint’s
death still more striking; but I think that the director of the Poulenc opera
also needs to attend to its subliminal zaniness.

Daniel Albright

image_description=ArtHaus Musik 101494
product_title=Francis Poulenc: Dialogues des CarmÈlites
product_by=Marquis de la Force: Wolfgang Schˆne; Blanche de la Force: Alexia Voulgaridou; Le chevalier de la Force: Nikolai Schukoff; Madame de Croissy: Kathryn Harries; Madame Lidoine: Anne Schwanewilms; MËre Marie de l’Incarnation: Gabrielle Schnaut; Soeur Constance de Saint-Denis: Jana B¸chner. Hamburg State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Florian Csizmadia). Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra. Simone Young, conductor. Nikolaus Lehnhoff, stage director. Raimund Bauer, set designer. Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, costume designer. Recorded live from the Staatsoper Hamburg, 2008.
product_id=ArtHaus Musik 101494 [Blu-Ray DVD]