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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Dialogues des Carmélites - opera in three acts (1957)
Patricia Petibon - Blanche de la Force/Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ,
Sophie Koch - Mother Marie of the Incarnation
Véronique Gens - Prioress Lidoine
Sandrine Piau - Sister Constance de Saint Denis
Rosalind Plowright - Prioress de Croissy
Topi Lehtipuu - The Chevalier de La Force
Philippe Rouillon - The Marquis de La Force
Annie Vavrille - Mother Jeanne
Sophie Pondjiclis - Sister Mathilde
François Piolino - Father Confessor
Matthieu Lécroart - Thierry, Doctor, Jailer
Yuri Kissin - Second Officer
Jérémy Duffau - First Officer
Chœur de Théâtre des Champs-Elysées,
Philharmonia Orchestra/Jérémie Rhorer
rec. Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, 21 December 2013
Video 1080i 16:9, Audio LPCM Stereo 2.0 48kHz/16 bit, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, Region free.
Sung in French, subtitles English, French and German
reviewed in surround
ERATO Blu-ray 2564 621953 [166.00]

This 1957 opera is a powerful and extremely uncomfortable work. One can hardly call it approachable, not because of the music, which is comfortably diatonic and very far from what the likes of Stravinsky, Britten, Tippett and Hindemith were writing at the time, but because of the story, based on actual events in Compiègne in 1794, and its subtext of fear and the reaction to fear. Poulenc wrote the work only a few years after the Second World War. As an openly gay man and a member of the Catholic Church which opposed homosexuality, and in a country which had only a few years earlier been under German occupation and had an active resistance, he was well placed to reflect such tensions and terrors on stage. It is hard to ignore this whilst watching the opera even though nothing on stage reflects such recent history. The progress of the work from the simple personal neurosis of the main protagonist Blanche, to the catastrophe of a mass guillotining of sixteen nuns including Blanche, for no worse crime than being peaceful representatives of a religion worshipping quietly behind closed doors, is inexorable. The surprise is that Poulenc, the composer, earlier, of so much light, charming and joyful music, had in him the creative imagination to compose a long and entirely dark opera which has been in the repertoire ever since.

This Blu-ray disc carries a first class performance by all concerned but especial mention must be made of Patricia Petibon, Sophie Koch, Véronique Gens and Rosalind Plowright, who stand out even among this superb cast. There is really not a weak link to be found. The orchestra is, slightly unexpectedly, our own Philharmonia who probably found this music a refreshing change. Unusually, the staging has not attempted to make any crass political points nor attempted to be clever. The setting is dark, simple and stark. Scenes are suggested with minimal props and even the ghastly final tableau is carried off without a hint of gore. Costumes are so simple as to go almost unnoticed. It just looks right. The French press got very excited about this production in the composer's fiftieth anniversary year. I note that the applause from the audience present in December 2013 was very prolonged and included curtain calls by all the production staff as well as the performers. One might be tempted to join in at home were it not for the state this piece leaves one in.

The picture is good, very important for a staging with so much darkness. The sound, though not high-resolution, is respectable Dolby Digital. I do wonder why we are not given DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 for a recording made just two years ago. The menu system has the usual arbitrary sound clips as overlay. I do wish disc producers would realize that the one purpose of opera on disc is to hear the music when it starts and not before. It also takes an inordinate number of button presses to reach, say Act 2, if one has chosen to have an interval in the domestic opera house.

Dave Billinge

Previous review: Michael Cookson



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