Francis Poulenc – Dialogues des Carmélites

Opéra National de Paris – Bastille, November 13, 2004

Conductor: Kent Nagano. Production: Francesca Zambello. Le Marquis de la Force: Alain Vernhes. Blanche: Dawn Upshaw. Le Chevalier: Yann Beuron. L'Aumonier du Carmel: Michel Sénéchal. Madame de Croissy: Felicity Palmer. Madame Lidoine: Eva Maria Westbroek. Mère Marie: Anja Silja. Soeur Constance: Patricia Petibon. Orchestre and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

If this were Japan, the tenor Michel Sénéchal (Aumonier), now over 75, would long ago have been declared a living national treasure. It’s the custom, when he takes a bow, to give him an ovation for the mere fact that he’s still treading the boards and singing a few notes. So it’s a measure of the overall ill-humour of the Paris public at present (mentioned in my recent review of St François d’Assise) that his showing in Poulenc’s Dialogues has been severely criticised and people have said it’s time for him to stop (I noted, yesterday evening, that he didn’t emerge to take a bow). Parisians, it seems, are so exasperated with the new management at the Opéra National that they’ve lost their manners.

This, I think, may help explain the venom aimed at Dawn Upshaw as Blanche, criticised variously for having no vowels, no consonants, no top, middle or lower register, singing like an old lady and singing like a gawky teenager… If she reads the reviews, apprehension may explain her curious lack of personality in the role – curious from a singer we know can act. Her voice is undersized for the Bastille, so when the orchestra swells she’s obliged to force it, giving some unpleasant sounds; but in quiet passages she can still float some beautiful pianos and pianissimos, and surely no-one will accuse her of lacking intelligence or good taste in her phrasing – unless they find her mannered. It is true, however, that her French is what the French call “exotic,” and that she would have made a better Blanche in a smaller theatre.

As a result, she was overshadowed by her partners. Felicity Palmer was an electrifying Madame de Croissy, the voice steely without being strident, dramatic, as one critic put it, “to the point of expressionism,” and was certainly the evening’s “winner” if the clapometer is anything to go by. Eva Maria Westbroek (Madame Lidoine) was new to me and is someone I’d like to hear again soon: she has a sumptuous, dark, mezzo-like soprano voice, in total and apt contrast to Felicity Palmer; her prison aria was magnificent. Patricia Petibon was as lively a Soeur Constance as could be, very nearly over-the-top, but her high notes were something of a luxury in this role. Yann Beuron was, like his “sister,” somewhat underpowered for the vast Bastille, but otherwise perfect for the part.

Anja Silja is a special case. Everything the critics have said about her, though sad, is I suppose true. There’s little left of her voice other than, at top and bottom, a kind of hoot with a pronounced vibrato, and in the middle, nothing audible at all. I can easily conceive that those hearing her for the first time must be disconcerted. But she remains a supreme presence and a great actress, so if you’ve heard her as Kostelnicka, the magic somehow still works, the finest moment for both her and Dawn Upshaw being their final confrontation.

And the magic works also, whatever the vocal weaknesses may or may not be, thanks to the production. Francesca Zambello has done a lot of work in Paris, good, bad and indifferent. Dialogues des Carmelites is one of her three very best, along with War & Peace and Billy Budd. The to-ings and fro-ings of productions between the Bastille and Garnier are among the recent oddities so annoying the Parisian public, but this one has transferred well. The sets are simple: two not-quite-concentric curves to the left, one bigger to the right: think “Richard Serra.” These pivot in absolute silence and the floor revolves, creating some remarkably intimate spaces on a stage so large, while still using it all.

The props are few: a classical statue high on the wall for Blanche’s age-of-enlightenment home; a gothic Virgin and Child for the convent; some baskets of linen, some candles, a suspended altarpiece; a chair and a bed for Madame de Croissy. The colour scheme is muted; shades of biscuit, creams and chalky whites; slate and steel; and the brown of the nuns’ habits. Only when revolution bursts in do we see brighter colours and faster movement. The lighting is superb, sometimes warm, sometimes cool, often from the side, casting dramatic shadows. Scenes frequently “compose,” as Henry James used to say, into tableaux (you can see this in the DVD of War & Peace), and the overall effect recalls Georges de la Tour.

The orchestra was on very fine form under Nagano, who brought out the Stravinsky in the score, keeping the textures clear and bright without repressing the drama at the end.

Talking of DVDs, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if this production made it to video – warts & all, if warts there really are. A recording would, as usual, iron out any vocal imbalances, and visually it would be hard to find better.

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