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17.4.06

Opera on DVD: Dialogues des Carmélites

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Francis Poulenc, Dialogues des Carmélites, Anne-Sophie Schmidt, Nadine Denize, Valerie Millot, directed by Marthe Keller, conducted by Jan Latham-Koenig, Orchestre Philmarmonique de Strasbourg, Choers de L'Opéra national du Rhin (Arthaus Musik 100019, released on November 14, 2000)
Gertrud von le Fort wrote a book, Die Letzte am Schafott (The Last on the Scaffold), based on the actual story of a Carmelite convent in Compiègne. Like so many Catholic monastic houses during the French revolution, this convent was taken over by the revolutionary government and the sisters were expelled. When they refused to abide by the terms of their house's disbanding, they were thrown into prison in Paris and eventually executed at the guillotine. Thérèse de Saint-Augustin (whose family name was Lidoine) and her fifteen companions, martyred at the Place du Trône renversé (now Place de la Nation) on July 17, 1794, were beatified as the Sixteen Blessed Martyrs of Compiègne by Pope Pius X in 1906. Seized as "national property," the convent was subsequently razed to the ground.

The monastery's problem was its connection to the French monarchy, near whose château in Compiègne the convent was built. While most of the nuns were of common birth, women connected to the nobility also professed there, such as one of the former mistresses of Louis XVI, as well as Mother Marie of the Incarnation (a character in the Poulenc opera), who was rumored to be the daughter of the Prince de Conti. As shown in the opera, Mother Marie -- ironically the one member who was of royal blood -- was away from the convent when it was disbanded and thus escaped the guillotine. She wrote the first chronicle of the martyrdom of the Compiègne Carmelites. (Marie-Antoinette and princesses of the royal family regularly visited and supported the convent, too.) Also as shown in the opera, Thérèse de Saint-Augustin encouraged the community to make a group vow of martyrdom, offering themselves as victims to bring about an end to the Reign of Terror. Shortly after the executions, which reportedly took place with the crowd observing an unaccustomed and horrified silence (one account relates that the women appeared as if they were going to their weddings), Robespierre's rule was ended on July 27. The opera's central character, Sister Blanche, is the only fictional role created by Gertrud von le Fort.

Also on Ionarts:

Charles T. Downey, Dawn Upshaw in Carmélites, Opéra National de Paris (November 10, 2004)

Jens F. Laurson, Nun Spared (Opera International) (August 6, 2004)
For his only full-length opera, a commission at La Scala in Milan, Francis Poulenc used a screenplay treatment of the novel by Georges Bernanos. As Poulenc completed the music, the man who was his lover and companion, Lucien Roubert, succombed to illness, and the religious fervor of the story had as a result even greater import for the composer. La Scala gave the premiere of Dialogues des Carmélites, one of the greatest and simultaneously most accessible operas of the 20th century, in 1957. In spite of the opera's continuing popularity, Washington National Opera has yet to mount a production of it. Something else for Ionarts to hope for in the future.

If you are looking for a way to experience this opera, try this excellent DVD (Arthaus Musik 100019) from the Opéra national du Rhin. It was a beautiful, minimalistic production directed by Marthe Keller -- bare sets by Jean-Pierre Capeyron, traditional but stark costumes by Florence Emir, and spare lighting punctuating predominant darkness by Dominique Borrini -- and recorded live in 1999. For a live recording, the sound is pretty good, with some distortions and murky parts. Conductor Jan Latham-Koenig led the Orchestre Philmarmonique de Strasbourg and Choeurs de L'Opéra national du Rhin in a compelling performance. Anne-Sophie Schmidt gives a moving rendition of the lead role of Blanche de la Force (Sœur Blanche de l'Agonie du Christ), capturing both the character's nervous fears and her deep devotion. The most emotionally draining performance was by Nadine Denize as Madame de Croissy, the convent's beloved and strict prioress. Both the interview with Blanche, during which the prioress allows the young woman to become a novice, and especially her death scene are beautifully handled.

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Les Fantaisies de Patricia Petibon (Caldara, Rameau, Barber, Bernstein), various groups
(released on January 6, 2004)
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French Baroque Arias (Rameau, Lully, Charpentier, Grandval), Les Folies Françoises, Cohen-Akenin
(released on February 12, 2002)
Both of the leading sisters to replace the prioress are well cast also. Valérie Millot is a sometimes frightening visionary as Madame Lidoine (Sœur Thérèse de Saint-Augustin), who leads the nuns into their collective vow of self-sacrifice. Hedwig Fassbender is much more somber as the more reserved Mère Marie de l'Incarnation, the only survivor. The high point of the cast is the kooky French soubrette Patricia Petibon as the flighty, exuberant, irrational Sœur Constance, the novice who befriends Blanche and, in an odd moment, tells her that they will both die young and together. In this form of the story, these two young nuns go last to the guillotine. Petibon will sing the role again in the production at the Teatro Real in Madrid this summer (June 8 to 30), with Robert Carsen directing and Andrea Rost as Blanche. Patricia Petibon got started singing with William Christie (she is on several recordings with Les Arts Florissants) and other Baroque music groups (Europa Galante, Concert d'Astrée, Les Talens Lyriques).

The execution scene is the only slightly weak point of the staging, in that Keller has the nuns lined up on stage and walking forward one by one. Instead of going to the guillotine off stage, each sister walks forward and, at the sound of the descending blade, pratfalls with a grimace to the floor. It's still shocking -- there is little that can really detract from the devastating conclusion (Tim Page's odd criticisms of the most recent production in Washington notwithstanding) -- but it could be more so than in this version.

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