CarmelitesFrancis Poulenc - Dialogues des Carmélites

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich 2010 | Kent Nagano, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Alain Vernhes, Susan Gritton, Bernard Richter, Sylvie Brunet, Soile Isokoski, Susanne Resmark, Hélène Guilmette, Heike Grötzinger, Anaïk Morel, Kevin Conners | Bel Air Classiques

Clever modern concept stagings of opera are all very well in the right place and with the right kind of opera. Sometimes however, it just seems perverse to take them out of their original context, particularly when the opera applies to a specific historical period or event that is explicitly referred to in the libretto. There seems little value then in “updating” Poulenc’s 1956 opera Dialogues des Carmélites away from its French Revolutionary setting or the historical incident in 1794 where sixteen nuns from a Carmelite convent in Compiègne were executed for resisting the confiscation of the church’s assets and the dissolution of the order.

You just know however that a controversial director like Dmitri Tcherniakov is never going to go down a conventional route, or even find an intermediary space (like the fine 2008 Nikolaus Lehnhoff production in Hamburg), where the actual themes of the opera beyond the historical setting can be examined, themes relating to the question of life in the face of death, fear of death and the nature of martyrdom for a cause. No, Tcherniakov doesn’t follow any expected route, but what clearly is his intention – as it is in all his productions, whether they actually work for an audience or not – is to attempt to cut the distance between the themes that are sometimes obscured by an overly elaborate and literal period setting, and strip back the staging in order to give the music and the singing the necessary environment that will allow provoke a reaction in the viewer towards the subtext. In the right kind of opera, it’s not so much about imposing a concept or an interpretation or being deliberately obscure for the sake of it, as allowing the audience the space to relate to the themes in their own personal way.

Whether that is achieved in this production of Dialogues des Carmélites recorded at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich is however debatable, as the staging seems to do its utmost to actually distance itself from the audience and box it into its own little world (the box within a box idea is also used in Tcherniakov’s staging for Verdi’s Macbeth, released by Bel Air alongside this). The period is non-specific but modern (even though the De la Force family still have a servant and chauffeur-driven coach), and Blanche de la Force certainly doesn’t enter any traditional kind of convent where the nuns wear habits. Perhaps reflecting Blanche’s fear of the world outside – and despite the Prioress Madame de Croissy’s insistence that it is not a refuge – the convent does resemble a women’s refuge, with all the sisters wearing heavy woollen cardigans and sensible skirts, all nursing mugs of hot tea.

There is no reason however why the questions that arise in the opera – making sense of life in the face of approaching death, finding order and meaning in it, and examining how each person individually comes to terms with their mortality – can’t be examined outside of the historical context of the French revolution. Poulenc based the opera on a play by Georges Bernanos, which in turn was based on an original 1931 novel by Gertrud von le Fort (’Die Letzte am Schafott‘), which itself used the subject as a means of commenting on German social disorder following the fall of the Weimar Republic – so it’s certainly artistically valid for Tcherniakov to update the work if it’s in the service of throwing a new light on the themes. What is rather more controversial is that the director radically changes the original ending – which is a really powerful conclusion. Tchernaikov’s finale, which practically turns the original on its head, is just as powerful and dramatic in its own right, but whether it “improves” or casts any further light on the actions of Blanche de la Force is debatable. It could just be that it’s the complete disregard of the traditional approach that is what is really shocking about the ending here, and it results in an equal amount of audible booing and cheers at the director’s curtain call.

At the very least however, Tcherniakov’s staging forces the audience to think about the subject again in a different way, and it’s an opera that really does have a lot of deeper subtexts to be drawn out of it. What makes this production even more worthwhile in this respect is the conducting of Kent Nagano. The music in Dialogues des Carmélites can be a little strange and unsettling, even with some hauntingly beautiful melodies that evoke Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélissande, but Nagano seems to bring out those ambiguous qualities of the opera and its similarities to Debussy even more strongly, with a greater sense of warmth and harmony than, for example the Hamburg production. That harmony and warmth is also more evident in the singing – although not in every case – so I wouldn’t necessarily say that one is better than the other, but I certainly find the interpretation here much more intriguing, creating new resonances and opening up the opera in an unexpected way.

Whether the staging works or not in a live context, it certainly doesn’t come across well on DVD or Blu-ray. The majority of the opera takes place (as you can see from the cover) within a boxed room on the stage. This means that crossbeams frequently get in the way, obscuring the view of the singers, which is further hampered by a gauze screen that softens the image, desaturates the colours and causes hazy netting effects. The HD reproduction of this consequently isn’t good, and the encoding doesn’t really help matters, looking rather blurry in movements. Between the net effect and the encoding, this does appear to be a visually substandard release. (Although the cover states it’s a BD25 disc it is however, as you would expect, BD50 – ie. dual-layer). The audio tracks are better, the singing mostly clear, the orchestration warm and enveloping, but also revealing a good amount of colour and detail. It’s no match for the precise crystalline clarity of the DTS HD-MA 7.1 mix on the Hamburg Staatsoper production, and if you would prefer a more faithful version of the opera I would highly recommend that release, but there are enough intriguing elements in the Nagano/Tcherniakov production to make this certainly worth your time.