Munich’s Dialogues des CarmÈlites

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 intermËde, in which the first piece is
labeled “Marche” (1889) and contains a dainty quotation from The
, 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

image_description=Dialogues des CarmÈlites
product_title=Francis Poulenc: Dialogues des CarmÈlites
product_by=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; MËre Marie: Susanne Resmark; Súur Constance: HÈlËne Guilmette; MËre Jeanne: Heike Grˆtzinger; Súur Mathilde: AnaÔk Morel. Bayerische Staatsoper. Conductor: Kent Nagano. Staged by: Dmitri Tcherniakov.
product_id=Bel Air Classics BAC461 [Blu-Ray]