Poulenc - Dialogues des Carmélites

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Friday February 9 2018

Conductor: Jérémie Rhorer. Production: Olivier Py. Sets and costumes: Pierre-André Weitz. Lighting: Bertrand Killy. Blanche de la Force: Patricia Petibon. Mère Marie de l’Incarnation: Sophie Koch. Madame Lidoine: Véronique Gens. Sœur Constance de Saint Denis: Sabine Devieilhe. Madame de Croissy: Anne Sofie von Otter.Le Chevalier de la Force: Stanislas de Barbeyrac. Le Marquis de la Force: Nicolas Cavallier. Mère Jeanne de l’Enfant Jésus: Sarah Jouffroy. Sœur Mathilde: Lucie Roche. Le Père confesseur du couvent: François Piolino. Le premier commissaire: Enguerrand de Hys. Le second commissaire, un officier: Arnaud Richard. Thierry, le médecin, le geôlier: Matthieu Lécroart. Orchestre National de France. Chœur du Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Ensemble Aedes.

Olivier Py’s staging of Dialogues des Carmélites has been seen in Paris before and played at La Monnaie in December, but this was my first chance to see it. It is very highly regarded - often cited as one of Py’s most successful productions, by some as his most successful of all. It has also had first-rate casts, and a glance at the list above will show that the current offering of illustrious singers, slightly different, is no exception.

The production is carefully-designed, sober, handsome and technically impeccable - this was probably the first time I’d ever seen a technical team come out to take a bow before anyone else. As I wrote about Claus Guth’s recent Jeptha, the basic colour code was grey – 50 nuances of it: but that’s no surprise these days and certainly not with Py. As the opera opens we are greeted, against a simple, dark, wooden wall, by our very old and familiar friend the lone chandelier. The initial family business, in costumes that seem to be from somewhere in the first half of the 20th century, is acted out at the front of the stage. While their backs are turned, a servant scrawls “liberté” in chalk on the wall. Later, we see “égalité”, to which “devant Dieu” is added by a nun, and later again, "Liberté... en Dieu".

As we move to the convent, the wooden wall parts in four sections, diagonally, so that the opening forms a cross of light. Blanche walks through it. In the convent and later in the prison, perhaps drawing an analogy between the two, stark beams of light shoot through slatted walls to etch complex criss-cross patterns on the floor. Sometimes grey walls and doorways, sometimes - when the leafless forest appears at the rear - wintry, life-size tree trunks glide silently into position. At relevant points, the nuns take up plywood cut-outs (of a lily, a halo, wings, tracery…) to form tableaux vivants: the annunciation, the nativity, the last supper, the crucifixion.

Like Hermann’s in Richard Jones’ peripatetic production of Pikovaya Dama, Madame de Croissy’s bed is pinned to the wall, as if we are looking down at it from the ceiling, with stark light from beneath casting spreading shadows. She agonises as if crucified - but in this case no skeleton emerges grotesquely from under the sheets to embrace her.

In prison, with their short hair uncovered, the nuns, formerly all in grey and black except Blanche and Constance, in cream, now all wear simple white shifts. For the “Salve regina” the rear of the bare, narrowed stage is open to a midnight sky scattered with bright stars. Of course, we don’t see a guillotine. As each stroke falls, a nun staggers back or clutches her throat. One by one, they walk off into the dark.

The cast was, as I said, illustrious and faultless. Patricia Petibon quite often used a boyish, vibrato-less voice to emphasise Blanche’s lost-waif personality, contrasting with Sabine Devieilhe’s nightingale purity: her top notes were almost unbearably sweet and delicate. Sophie Koch brought drama and dependable strength to Mère Marie, while Véronique Gens’s Madame Lidoine was almost glamorously patrician. Anne Sofie von Otter was as good as I’ve ever seen her as Madame de Croissy, suffering and blaspheming with none of the vocal mannerism that has sometimes bothered me.

Poulenc and friend
The men, of course, get less to do, but Stanislas de Barbeyrac was a resounding Chevalier - too resounding perhaps: it wouldn’t be a bad thing if he used a wider dynamic range - i.e. sometimes sang less loudly. But this was a performance where none of the voices was to be complained about: no real weak links.

So the next day, I asked a friend who was also there if he’d actually felt anything during the evening. “The only time was when Blanche’s brother came to visit her” he said. Exactly my thought. So then the question is, why, with such an apparently perfect production and with such a great cast, weren’t we actually moved? One reason, in my case, is that I have not a shred of religious feeling in me and as a result have little sympathy for the nuns (and, as I’ve often said, prefer Les Mamelles de Tirésias a hundredfold). But the friend in question loves the work.

As I mentioned above, this production is often cited as one of Olivier Py’s best. But on YouTube, where the whole Brussels performance can be found, I found this comment: “Py's production is remarkable, in that it is a disaster from beginning to end. Where it is not pretentious it's dull and lifeless— a remarkable feat given the volatility and drama of the score. All of which is too bad, because this is one of the best sung performances I've ever heard.” So not everyone loves it. “Dull and lifeless” somehow strikes a chord; and if “pretentious” could be construed as meaning the overall design is too “designerly”, like something out of Architect’s Digest, then maybe there’s something in that.

Perhaps it was significant that another friend, a designer by trade, during the interval, started to comment on the production then corrected herself: “Well, the scénographie at least…” And then I personally am still not convinced that Jérémie Rhorer is a theatrical conductor.

So I sat there wishing like crazy that I’d eventually feel something, but apart from a brief stirring during that scene between brother and sister, didn’t: I was stubbornly, stonily unmoved.

Here, Maestro Wenarto provides some relief.