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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
The Carmelites - Opera in three acts (1953-56)
Libretto by the composer after Georges Bernanos' play Dialogue des Carmélites, revised English version by Joseph Machlis
Ashley Holland (baritone) - Marquis de la Force
Catrin Wyn-Davies (soprano) - Blanche de la Force
Peter Wedd (tenor) - Chevalier de la Force
Gary Coward (baritone) - Thierry
Natalie Herman (soprano) - Off-stage voice
Felicity Palmer (mezzo) - Madame de Croissy
Josephine Barstow (soprano) - Mother Marie
Orla Boylan (soprano) - Madame Lidoine
Sarah Tynan (soprano) - Sister Constance
Jane Powell (mezzo) - Mother Jeanne
Anne Marie Gibbons (mezzo) - Sister Mathilde
Ryland Davies (tenor) - The Chaplain
William Berger (baritone) - Monsieur Javelinot
James Edwards (tenor) - First Commissioner
Roland Wood (baritone) - Second Commissioner
Toby Stafford-Allen (baritone) - First Officer
David Stephenson (baritone) - Gaoler
English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Paul Daniel
rec. Blackheath Halls, London, 20-26 October 2005. DDD.
CHANDOS CHAN 3134(2) [79.50 + 64.25]

It was my distinct pleasure to review for Seen and Heard ENO’s production of The Carmelites when it was last staged in October 2005. What struck me most then was the power inherent in Phyllida Lloyd’s staging, although the particularly strong lead quartet of Catrin Wyn-Davies, Felicity Palmer, Josephine Barstow and Sarah Tynan left their mark with indelible contributions too.
This recording, made at much the same time as that run of performances, highlights several aspects of Poulenc’s musical personality that are intertwined within the piece. The Carmelites is Poulenc’s most complex statement on the personal nature of religious belief and the sacrifice that it can often require those most devoted to it to make. Being closer in spirit to the world of the Gloria than the seemingly carefree Parisian ambiance that imbues the piano concerto, for example, it is a work that must be performed with reverence but without becoming over-sanctified in the process. The stories of Blanche de la Force, Madame de Croissy, Sister Constance and the other nuns are first and foremost human stories, then religious ones. Personal terror is played out against state terror, and as such the consuming mood is one of fear that never dissipates throughout the entire duration of the piece.
Inevitably this recording raises the issue of language and performance.  I found Joseph Machlis’ English translation to be sympathetic to the spirit of Poulenc’s own libretto. If any are troubled by the idea of hearing The Carmelites in translation, I would merely point out that the work was commissioned for La Scala, Milan, and was first given there in Italian during the 1957 season. A reasonable recording from that production exists, featuring Romanian soprano Virginia Zeani as a very fine Blanche de la Force, should anyone wish to seek it out. A pity that another Romanian, Leontina Vaduva, was not heard often enough in the role when she took it into her repertoire.  Inevitably though any newcomer has to stand its ground against Dervaux’s classic account for EMI, recorded under the supervision of the composer (Great Recordings of the Century 562 751-2).
I have to say I think Paul Daniel’s recording holds its own pretty well in terms of the dynamic pacing and sense of energy he draws from the ENO orchestra. Indeed, hearing playing of this calibre makes you wonder why the two parted company as they did. Daniel manages to capture an edge in the distinctly Poulencian orchestral timbres that stick firmly in the mind and register over a long period the inevitability of the drama’s final outcome.
The cast is understandably dominated by the women in it, though the male roles play a crucial role also. I still feel that vocally at least Felicity Palmer steals the show as Madame de Croissy, such is the power of her characterisation. It is given with absolute commitment, but no less might be said of Catrin Wyn-Davies, who sings Blanche de la Force with unimpeachable musicality and awareness of tone, line and nuance, but overall Denise Duval for Dervaux has the edge as Blanche. Sarah Tynan’s Sister Constance continues to be a considerable highlight in an already distinguished career. Perhaps one day there may be a Blanche to set amongst the best to come from her? The other sisters are a well-matched group vocally, giving their parts with passion and feeling to reinforce the point that they are no mere extras in this terrifying drama.  Ashley Holland and Ryland Davies stand out for their contributions amongst the men. David Stephenson’s gaoler exerts his malevolent authority with ease. 
Much recommended then, whether you’re after a version in English or an alternative to sit alongside EMI’s recording with Dervaux. There is much to enjoy and move you in this recording.
Evan Dickerson


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