CarmelitesFrancis Poulenc - Dialogues des Carmélites

Staatsoper Hamburg, 2008 | Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Andreas Morell, Simone Young, Anne Schwanewilms, Alexia Voulgaridou, Nikolai Schukoff, Wolfgang Schöne | Arthaus Musik

Francis Poulenc’s 1957 opera, for which he both composed the music and wrote the libretto (from a play by Georges Bernanos), has many distinct and individualistic qualities that set it apart, not least of which is the unique subject matter of the execution of Carmelite nuns by French Revolutionaries in 1794. The treatment however is just as fascinating, the subject of death ominously present not only through the novice nun Blanche’s pathological fear of death, through the suffering of ailing Mother Superior and the eventual martyrdom of the nuns, but also in the delicacy of the musical accompaniments that evoke an almost romantic relationship or fascination with the idea of death.

One other notable and unusual aspect of Dialogues des Carmélites is the dominance and importance of female voices, in recitative dialogue and in relation to one another. The opera really is a celebration of the female voice, ranging from soprano to mezzo-soprano and contralto, all used marvellously and, it has to be said, sung magnificently in this production. There are male roles in the opera and they are not insignificant, lending a welcome variety of colour and tone to the overpowering predominance of female singing that could otherwise become a little tiring at such length.

The staging of this Hamburg production is a masterpiece of the minimalist style, well suited to the dark subject matter and achieving incredible intensity and drama mainly from its use of light and shade and some subtle colouration. It’s perhaps a little too intense and austere when the opera is more lyrically varied in its score and libretto, but it’s true that the sense of death is omnipresent, the questions of faith and life discussed by the nuns all coloured by consideration of death. When combined with the remarkable singing, the power of the denouement is simply shattering. A truly unique opera experience.

The Blu-ray quality is superb, certainly in terms of the audio - an exceptional DTS HD Master Audio 7.1 mix - although, as noted elsewhere, there are issues with the image. Rather than being a flaw with the recording or the transfer, the mosquito noise dots actually seem to be part of the staging, caused by a fine gauze screen at the front of the stage. This is often used in stage productions for light diffusion, but rarely throughout a whole opera. Although it seems a strange decision to film the opera with a screen in-between, it’s presumably part of the production design to soften the otherwise harsh direct lighting. The dots are not always noticeable - only when performers are filmed in close-up and when they are towards the front of the stage. There’s little here however that spoils the enjoyment of this beautifully staged and fascinating opera.