Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Dialogue des Carmélites (1953-56)
Jean-Philip Lafont (baritone) - Marquis de la Force
Sally Matthews (soprano) - Blanche de la Force
Yann Beuron (tenor) - Chevalier de la Force
Deborah Polaski (mezzo) - Madame de Croissy
Michelle Breedt (soprano) - Mère Marie
Heidi Brunner (soprano) - Madame Lidoine
Hendrickje van Kerckhove (soprano) - Sister Constance
ORF Radio-Symphonieorkester Wien/Bertrand de Billy
rec. January 2008 and April 2011, Theater an der Wien
OEHMS CLASSICS OC931 [68.46 + 76.23]

This production first saw the light of day in 2008 at the Theater an der Wien, and the original recording was only intended for radio broadcast. CD release at the time was prevented due to legal reasons, but the success of the original meant a revival of the production in 2011 which allowed a CD version to be prepared. There is no indication of which takes came from which editions, but as a “best of” both series there are no discernible joins to concern the potential purchaser.
What will concern most potential purchasers is how this performance stacks up against two pretty stiff competitors. Kent Nagano’s Virgin Classics recording with Opera de Lyon has a very strong cast and a superb recording which has been my main reference for years. The sheer clarity in every aspect of the performance and recorded production means the emotive weight of the story carries no extra luggage, and has its full and chilling effect every time. The grand old EMI recording – one of the earlier choices as part of the Great Recording of the Century series conducted by Pierre Dervaux, with Denise Duval, Régine Crespin et al is in doughty mono, but still packs an authoritative punch as the work’s first recording after some revisions made after the première production in 1957. This version has the greatest French flavour and most direct theatricality of any recording I could mention. The orchestral intonation is a bit sour in numerous places however, and despite its Gallic riches it wouldn’t be my first choice. The Chandos English language version (see review) is surprisingly good, though I was initially resistant to such treatment of so very French a creation. For non-linguists this version does help with the work’s accessibility, but the change of language does affect the nature of the drama a great deal. English is just too genteel a vehicle of communication to make the whole scenario entirely convincing, and the ghosts of farce or fishermen are never far enough away in my set of associations to make this a first choice for me.
So, what of Bertrand de Billy’s Dialogues des Carmélites? For a start it is very well recorded, the Theater an der Wien acoustic being on the dry side, but not uncomfortably so. The orchestral sound is warm and not overly spotlit, but doesn’t have quite the lucidity of Nagano’s Virgin Classics version. The live nature of the recording means there is a certain amount of stage noise, but fortunately not too much heavy clumping around. There is always a gain and loss aspect to live opera recordings, and I feel the results here are very much in the gain camp, with a feel of drama and vibrancy which allows you to close your eyes and ‘live in the performance’. There are alas a few unfortunately timed coughs at the beginning of the Stravinsky-esque opening to Act 2 and elsewhere, but a certain amount of heavy breathing and voices moving about is all part of the experience, and after becoming acclimatised I found it all very involving indeed. There is applause at the end but this isn’t allowed to linger for long – in fact the fade-out is rather abrupt, though the response is ecstatic enough.
The cast is good, though there are a few observations to be made. Jean-Philippe Lafont as the Marquis has a vibrato which can shift rubble. Early on in the opera this results in plenty of blustery authoritarianism but plenty of notes which can be freely filled-in by the listener. Yann Beuron as his son is a strong and flexible tenor, and the key role of Blanche is done beautifully by Sally Matthews, with some startlingly well observed emotional extremes and very moving moments indeed. She has enough girlishness to be convincingly youthful sounding, but has enough vocal character to create a fully rounded character. The supporting females aren’t quite as impressive but fill their roles well. Deborah Polaski is irrepressible as Madame de Croissy, Michelle Breedt suits the part of Mére Marie impressively.
The most important moments are all very well done, the Mother Superior’s agonies and death at the end of Act I for instance performed without extravagant melodrama. The intensity and build-up to the final scenes of condemnation is tremendous, but alas, the sound of the falling guillotine blade in the final Salve Regina is rather pre-recorded and artificial sounding. This effect needs to have a thud which makes you flinch at each repetition, and it doesn’t quite work here. I suppose Nagano’s recording is the most convincing in this regard, somewhere in between the première EMI version which sounds like someone chopping wood and this one, where the rather over-done slide of the blade is all you really hear. It reminds me of one of those doors on Star Trek, but badly in need of maintenance. Never mind, it’s all very moving and tragic, and we can all come away from the experience glad we live in more humane times, yes?
All in all this is a highly recommendable recording of an opera everyone should have in their collection. In fact, if you have no other opera in your collection this is the one to have – on your top ten wish list if nothing else. Poulenc’s score is moving and marvellous: the whole experience can be overwhelming live, and is strong enough stuff on this recording. This version doesn’t quite knock my Kent Nagano favourite from its perch, but does come very close, and if you fancy a live performance alternative this is very well worth having.
Dominy Clements
Very close to first-choice status.