Monday, April 26, 2010

Dialogues de Tcherniakov avec Poulenc

Dialogues des Carmélites , Bayrische Staatsoper in Munich, April 23, 2010

Conductor Kent Nagano
Production Dmitri Tcherniakov

Marquis de la Force Alain Vernhes
Blanche de la Force Susan Gritton
Chevalier de la Force Bernard Richter
Madame de Croissy Sylvie Brunet
Madame Lidoine Soile Isokoski
Mère Marie Susanne Resmark
Soeur Constance Hélène Guilmette
Mère Jeanne Heike Grötzinger
Soeur Mathilde Anaïk Morel
L'aumônier Xavier Mas
1er commissaire Ulrich Reß
2ème commissaire John Chest
L'officier Christian Rieger
Le geôlier Levente Molnár
Thierry Rüdiger Trebes

This is a kind of productions that makes the Bayrische Staatsoper in Munich such an amazingly lively theater today. Firstly, it is very professionally produced, brilliantly sung and orchestrally very well performed which seems to be a standard of the house. There are productions you like more, some other less,  but there is always that vivid desire to push the envelope, to try something new, to push the boundaries. I'm yet to see a stale, shabby, or a badly sung production in Munich. You can easily argue that this is the top opera scene in Europe right now.

Back to this particular production. It is a cutting edge show on many different levels and if you've ever experienced any other production of Dialogues des Carmélites you cannot say you were not disturbed by what Tcherniakov proposed in his reading of the libretto. The traditionalists were, of course, angry, and --for what it's worth-- I absolutely loved his whole approach.

If you don't know the story of the Carmélites, please do read a short synopsis of this opera here.

To me, Tcherniakov did what an honest director living in the 21st century should do: he stripped off the nobility in sacrificing a human life for religious or ideological beliefs. He completely turned around the libretto and essentially trashed the basic intention by Francis Poulenc. His Carmélites are in fact a paranoid community of women who refuse to live in phase with their time, but prefer to live the life as it once was. As we know, such an ideology[religion] constrained life in the marginalized community is bound to end tragically. They [the Carmélites] decide to stay in their premises[convent] in spite of the pressure from the authorities [police] to leave. They decide to commit the suicide as a sign of protest, to spite the authority and thereby express their implicit support to the ancient regime.  They close the doors and windows, let the gas fill the rooms and decide to die together from suffocation. A marvelous twist to the story comes with Blanche de la Force who comes at the very last moment to break into the house and rescue all the women one by one, only to perish herself after the explosion of the gas in the confined space. The message is clear: no religious or ideological belief is worth your life. After all the collective suicides of various marginal sects we saw in the media over the past few decades, after the atrocious events on 9/11, many suicide bombs in India, Russia...etc,  in our post-ideological society of this century, there is no space to nobility when it comes to sacrificing a human life for religious/ideological beliefs. We can further debate this issue and relate it or not to the Poulenc's opera, but I definitely buy into the Tcherniakov's humanist approach to this opera.

I should also stress that Tcherniakov picks more on the perversion of ideology to put a human life at stake, rather than on a religion -- which, again, is again the Poulenc's basic intentions (although you're free to interpret it the way you want). His Aumônier, for example, is portrayed like a reactionary political commissar, scared for his life and uses whatever the trick to convince the  Carmélites to hide him in their house/convent.

The personal drama of Blanche is turned around too. As in any of the traditional stagings, she does leave the order to go and "see" her family. Her faith was not more important than her life. But contrary to the traditional stagings, she does not come back to conquer her fear and embrace the catholic religion. Instead, she comes back to rescue the other women: she did not only realize that her life was more precious than religion/ideology, she also realized that their common faith is not worth anyone's life.

Isn't that more noble than seeing Blanche joining all the nuns in the never-ending scene of execution by guillotine?

Now, the problem with this rather radical modification of Poulenc's opera is that the music does not necessarily go in the same direction. This is why you don't feel the shivers down your spine during the final scene and Salve Regina. I also believe Kent Nagano was obliged to thin down the orchestration of that final scene which eliminated the pathos that you normally experience in the final 15 minutes of this opera. Otherwise it would be in contradiction with what's being presented on the stage.

Overall the singing was very good, with a smashing performance by Sylvie Brunet and Bernard Richter. Sylvie is by far the best Mme de Croissy I've ever seen or listened to: her voice is wonderful and sits perfectly with the score, her high notes are plain and round, her gravi are sensational; she's expressive and was acting wonderfully. Her voice and her theatricality definitely gets better with age.
Bernard Richter is certainly one of the most underrated tenors and major surprises I've seen in years.   His voice is luminous, rock solid, with enough power generated to dominate the rest of the cast. His Mozart roles must be wonderful. I just noticed on his website that we will see him in Paris next September in The Flying Dutchman [little role but it's still good...]. Good!

Also vocally irreproachable and scenically brilliant were Susan Gritton as Blanche de la Force [although a little better as singer than as actress], and Hélène Guilmette as a gleaming Constance.  A slight disappointment came from Soile Isokoski, who is a brilliant singer and who physically incarnates a sensational Mme Lidoine, but the role itself does not suit her Mozartian voice. For this role you need a more timbred, more of a plain voice. In spite of her easy top her main aria, "Mes chères filles", sounded weirdly undertoned. It fills you with the same feeling you have after listening to her Feldmarschallin [from Der Rosenkavalier]: Her voice is great but it does not fit this role.
Another disappointment came from Xavier Mass who I liked on many occasions: a young bright tenor who fearlessly builds his way up to the top. However, he seems to have taken on far too many new roles and his voice sounds tired right now, he's pushing his voice too much and as a result it sounds worn out. I hope this is just a warning for him to take more care about his schedule and take it easy -- if he does not to end in the category of "two-years-lasting-wonders".

Always good orchestra and Kent Nagano did the best they could. As I said it above, the final did sound frustrating to us who were used to this opera ending with large pathos. If that can be explained as a Nagano's try to adjust the orchestration with the Tcherniakov's show, it is hard to justify the shockingly fast paced "Mes chères filles", which would be my sole objection to the orchestral part of the evening.

All in all, this was a superb evening at the Opera and if you get the chance to see it in July 2010 during the Festspiele in Munich, be ready for quite a disturbing but eventually musically and scenically very rich show.

The above photo is lifted from the BSO web site where you can find more of them.

A few of my CC pics:

Bernard Richter in the middle: to his right Hélène Guilmette and Sylvie Brunet; to his right Susanne Resmark

Hélène Guilmette, Susan Gritton and Kent Nagano

Xavier Mass, Hélène Guilmette and Soile Isokoski

Always good - the BSO chorus

Gritton, Nagano, Isokoski, Brunet

 For completeness, here is the trailer for this production

and one of my favorite performances of the final scene with Salve Regina (the Marthe Keller's production from Strasbourg - c.f. DVD)


  1. Fortunately the opera houses don¨t categorize singers and voices as narrow mindedly as you do!

  2. Hey that was another anonymous - not me ;). I have commented a lot lately under anonymous, but not here. I refuse to comment on this one because you didn't want to say hi - which was just a totally innocent proposal by the way!

  3. What is that?! I'm always glad to see people during the intermission to "argue" about what we just saw ;)
    When I have too many work related stuff then I cannot say anything: that's why I couldn't go to Barcelona, to Amsterdam (even if I had the tic for Les Troyens and was looking forward to that show for almost a year), and wasn't sure I'd manage to go to the opera on the day of the show in Munich.
    I only went to Stuttgart and to Rouen to see the shows ;)

    Next time in Munich, *hopefully* for the Bayrische Opernfestspiele. Cheers

  4. Ah, but we could have fixed it just in case, non?
    The Opernfestspiele are a tricky one. I only have tickets for Mr Mariusz, both his performances as Conte, as that is supposed to be rather hot ;), everything else I either didn't get or didn't want.
    Well in that case I will comment as follows: It's funny you pointed out Mr Richter and Mozart, because when I heard him first time in the Generalprobe (Carmelites), I immediately sent him a mail asking him why he doesn't have Mozart on his webpage on the audio bits - I really would have like to hear some of that (he has done lots of that in Freiburg apparantly). -
    There is a bit of religion at the Dima show by the way, maybe subconsciously even: One newspaper review pointed out that the way they sit looks a bit like the "Abendmahl", which I find a rather interesting comment.
    Actually you missed the best bit, which was listening to Mr Dima in Russian at the matinee, I could listen to him for hours (I understand only very little Russian - still).

  5. Hallo!
    I went to the same performance.
    I was so dissapointed over that Susanne Resmark was sick, she is a great singer!
    But thankgod she was still on stage, no one can play the part of Mere Marie like her.
    I have a ticket in July, Im so looking forward to seeing it again!

    Loise von Horn

  6. And Violetta? Did you know that? Violetta didn't die. She just pretended to die, but she didn't. She is still a whore and has found a new sugar-daddy: father Germont. And they run away together, leaving Alfredo in his sorrow… Now, the problem is that the music and the libretto don't really support this alternative but yet more honest ending…

    I think those productions where composer's intentions are twisted (to say the least -- or trashed to use the reviewer's words) simply don't make sense. Directors think they are smarter, but they aren't. Reviewers think they know it all, but perhaps they don't really consider the questions that the composer with his art is putting on the table.

    Why is it "honest" to dismiss the value of martyrdom and trash as irrelevant for our times, instead of posing the question about the value of offering life to God in a religious life to the point of martyrdom, or -differently put, quoting Dostoevskij- can a man of culture, a man of our days, believe -really believe- in the divinity of Jesus Christ, son of God? Can faith stand before the ideology and power (aka revolution)? Is it reasonable to have faith?

    Those questions inspired Poulenc when he decided to compose an opera based on a -true- event that took place almost two hundreds years before. Those are -likely- the questions that Poulenc wanted each of us to explore, when listening to his opera.
    Keeping those questions aside, or -worse- answering on our behalf, is violence to Poulenc himself, his art and eventually to each of us.

    To conclude, thank you OperaCake for reviewing this production. Before reading your article I was tempted to buy the DVD, as I really like this opera. After reading it, I am sure it is not for me.