Francis Poulenc - Dialogues des Carmélites
Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris 2013
Jérémie Rhorer, Olivier Py, Sophie Koch, Patricia Petibon, Véronique Gens, Sandrine Piau, Rosalind Plowright, Topi Lehtipuu, Philippe Rouillon, Annie Vavrille, Sophie Pondjiclis, François Piolino, Jérémy Duffau, Yuri Kissin, Matthieu Lécroart
France TV Culturebox, ARTE Live Web Internet Streaming - 21 December 2013
Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites seems to be a work almost made for Olivier Py. The French actor and director's profile is high at the moment, featuring prominently at the Paris Opéra this season and most recently having directed Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet for La Monnaie as part of a series of productions of the major French works of the 19th century - a project that is now on hold while he takes up the running of the Avignon Festival. Based on a drama by Georges Bernanos relating the martyrdom of 16 nuns executed during the French revolution, Poulenc's 20th century masterpiece would however seem to fit more closely with Py's very public profile in France as a Catholic and as something of a controversial figure or revolutionary in the opera world.
The two elements of course don't fit all that well together, but they do provide much of the conflict of opposing ideals that lie at the heart of the work and provide fertile ground for this particular director to work with. Common to both however is the idea of 'Liberté' and it's the manner in which this freedom is explored and eventually found by Blanche de la Force that is central to the work. The idea of 'Liberté' consequently features prominently in the production, the word scrawled on a wall by one of the revolutionaries (one of the servants of the De la Force house) who are becoming more present on the streets, and it is transformed into 'Liberté en Dieu' (Freedom in God) by the time of Poulenc's incredible musical 'Salve Regina' setting of the execution of the nuns. There is some distance that has to be covered between those two points, but Py's direction and the superb casting for the production cover those well.
One of the main motivating factors that drive Blanche to this revelation, a subject that is at the heart of many of the dialogues in the opera, is fear. Blanche is a timid creature, not made for the real world, suffering from an almost pathological fear of death. Yet death and fear seems to surround her, first through the death of her mother as a young girl, and with the upsurge of revolutionary violence on the streets of Paris that waylays her carriage at the start of the opera on her way home to her brother and father. The outside world holds too many horrors for the young woman, so Blanche decides to withdraw from it and enter a Carmelite convent. She envisages some kind of "heroic life" as a Carmelite nun, but her ideas are soon dispelled by the Mother Superior, even more so when the old woman dies an agonising, blaspheming death soon afterwards.
Olivier Py's direction of this important scene is characteristic of the simplicity suggested by the setting, but also the underlying force of the highly-charged crises of faith and personal weaknesses that each of the women overcome over the course of events that lead to their eventual martyrdom. Madame de Croissy is pinned vertically high on the wall in her bed, beyond the reach of Blanche and the nuns in attendance on her, the harsh lighting from below the stage casting long terrifying shadows mark her bitterness at the nature of her painful, agonising death. Elsewhere the stage is similarly plainly adorned, the lighting depicting a world of stark black and white, with separating walls reflecting the reality of the convent's walls, as well as being symbolic of Blanche's retreat from the world.
Significantly, the walls open, separate and rise and at one stage to create the form of a cross, and it's in such moments - and in the little tableaux scenes - that Olivier Py makes his mark in his consideration of the work's religious significance. One doesn't need to be a Christian believer to recognise that Dialogues des Carmélites deals with more fundamental issues beyond those of questions of religious faith. The director's own personal faith does at least encourage him to follow through the essential questions of freedom, equality and brotherhood (or sisterhood in this case) that relate to the Revolutionary setting and in how they pertain to religious belief - freedom from fear, freedom of expression, freedom to practise one's faith, freedom from the tyranny of death in the promise of an afterlife.
Where one stands on such questions no doubt determines the staging of the all-important finale, as can be seen from Nikolaus Lehnhoff's starkly final extinguishing of the light in Hamburg marked by each fall of the guillotine, or indeed in Dmitri Tcherniakov's complete subversion of the message in the hugely controversial Paris production where all the nuns incredibly remain alive at the conclusion. Olivier Py's creation of the final scene for the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées is as plain and simply dressed as it the production is elsewhere, with no additional dramatic effects. At the fall of the guillotine, each Carmelite nun, dressed in a plain white robe, simply drops her head and walks towards the light of the stars at the back of the stage. This more clearly responds to the religious message of the work, and - as one of the greatest coups de théâtre in all of opera - Py's staging of it is unquestionably just as effective as the scene ought to be.
Poulenc's score for the opera is also filled with the same kind of religious fervour and conductor Jérémie Rhorer consequently takes the orchestra through a robust musical performance of the work. In contrast to Kent Nagano's interpretation, there's less of the shimmering Debussy here and more of the muscular Mussorgsky that form part of the work's musical influences. There's almost a strident romanticism about the performance here, one that also hints at film-music type composition with dramatic underscoring, but Poulenc's score isn't so easy to pin down and Rhorer also manages to bring out moments of beauty in its expressionistic touches.
More than anything however, the score to Dialogues des Carmélites is attuned to the voices, to the dialogues, to conveying the words and their underlying sentiments with maximum expression. The outstanding cast assembled here are certainly capable of achieving that. It's not so much the variety of voices - although they combine and interrelate wonderfully across the whole female range - but it's particularly fine when it's sung by such a distinguished cast of distinctive singers like Patricia Petibon (Blanche), Sophie Koch (Mère Marie), Véronique Gens (Madame Lidoine), Sandrine Piau (Sister Constance) and Rosalind Plowright (Madame de Croissy). It's a rare treat to have such singers all together in one production and they each bring considerable personality to the work. The male singers also have an important role to play and those are capably performed by Topi Lehtipuu (Chevalier de La Force), Philippe Rouillon (the Marquis) and François Piolino (the Convent Priest).
This production of Dialogues des Carmélites can be viewed on-line from the Culturebox website or on ARTE Live Web. Subtitles on both sites are in French only.