La Scena Musicale

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Dialogues of the Carmelites: Munich Opera Festival

Photo: Dialogues of the Carmelites, Munich Opera Festival, July 2010





Dialogues des Carmelites. Russian steppes or French countryside?
Richard Rosenman, Editor, Wagner News (Toronto Wagner Society)
LSM Guest Reviewer
The curtain rises on a vignette that promises but not delivers the expectation produced –an iconic street scene of rushing, anonymous multitudes is contrasted with a lone immobile figure apart, alone. This is Blanche, and a deep silence envelops all.
This production of Francis Poulenc’s work, revived from the Munich premiere of March 28, 2010, tries to be a mood piece – a lonely cabin in nowhere, an island of light in a dark nothingness; but no matter how it advances from backstage to front, no matter how it turns this way or other to face the public, it is still a transparent cage full of squabbling women, dressed like any homebound housewives. The transparency is visual and acoustic. It allows us to see and hear the dialogues. The action takes place in this one space, now a common room, now the Mother Superior’s death chamber, and so on. There is no nunnery paraphernalia, no Christian symbols to distinguish this group from any gathering of manless women. No reference to their faith. No threatened doom from the synthetic police, wimpy and hardly the instruments of implacable, cruel state.
The only refugee is the text which, mercifully, Dmitri Tcherniakov was not allowed to alter, ringing with addresses like “mother”, “sister”, as the only references to what Bernanos wanted, and names like Chevalier de la Force and Blanche de la Force, the last one the lone figure at the opening and the victim who rehabilitates herself at the end, but the Tcherniakov way.
Tcherniakov drifts too far from the intentions and promises of the text, culminating in a finale difficult to reconcile with sounds of another, embedded in the libretto. The self immolation, or self asphyxiation, planned by the sisters in the now sealed cabin/hut/convent room, is foiled by Blanche, bent on martyrdom, breaking down the door and leading the sisters one by one out into open air. She then locks herself in the now abandoned hut/etc/etc and presumably perishes in the ensuing fiery explosion, complete with a mini mushroom cloud of artificial smoke.
One of the most moving effects of the original is rendered meaningless by this contrived ending, worthy of a Schwartzeneger’s erstwhile films. This whole ado about the sealed hut and the rescue of the sisters, is accompanied by the ominous thumps, referential to a guillotine, here out of context. It is as if at the end Hamlet went on a vacation.
With fine singing overall, still some distinguish themselves. The mature Felicity Palmer, as the dying prioress, Madame De Croissy, quite convincing in her death rattle; Chevalier de la Force, Blanche’s brother, Bernard Richter, fine tenor and her father, Marquis de la Force, Alain Vernhes, engaging; Soile Isokoski as Madame Lidoine, and, of course, Blanche, Susan Gritton, a beautiful soprano, perhaps too lyrical for one consumed so by angst that it drove her to seek refuge from the world in a convent and faith, and ultimately to martyrdom by self sacrifice.
Kent Nagano, who led the orchestra, was visibly the public’s favorite. He received the most dedicated applause among the lukewarm audience reaction. Part of it was surely a reaction to his decision to depart as the Munich Staatsoper’s musical director, a common knowledge by then. Still, a number of empty seats condemned the performance a priori.

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