Riccardo Muti / Dagmar Schellenberger / Anja Silja

Francis Poulenc: Dialogues des Carmélites [Video]

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Director Robert Carsen created this daringly unconventional but compelling version of Poulenc's only full-length opera, Dialogues des Carmelites, for De Nederlandse Opera Amsterdam, but this 2004 performance features the Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala when the production was taken to Milan. Designer Michael Levine uses a bare stage with a minimum of props -- a chair, a bed, a table, a few benches -- and relies largely on the placement of the chorus and the striking lighting of Jean Kalman to define the spaces in which the opera is set. The play of light and darkness is an important organizing visual element, and Kalman occasionally achieves the gorgeous luminous subtlety of a Vermeer painting. The final scene makes the most radical departure from traditional productions of the opera. There's no guillotine visible and the nuns don't disappear from the stage one by one, but Carsen's chilling handling of the scene is no less harrowing than the conventionally realistic approach. His stripped-down approach to the opera can work because the singers are also riveting actors; the community of the nuns is conveyed with such emotional honesty that it would be difficult not to be drawn into it. The singing is consistently of the highest quality. The most memorable performance is perhaps that of Anja Silja as the troubled first prioress, Madame de Croissy. Silja was only 64 when the recording was made, but she comes across as absolutely ancient, and it's impossible to take your eyes off her. Her voice wouldn't be described as beautiful (she has declared that vocal beauty is irrelevant in the roles she cares about) but it is inescapably commanding, even mesmerizing. As Madame Lidoine, her successor as prioress, Gwynne Geyer is a complete contrast -- young and vibrant with both an earthy humor and serene spirituality. Her aria, "Mes filles, voilà que s'achève," is one of the musical highlights of the performance. Barbara Dever is an unusually sympathetic Mère Marie and Laura Aikin is delightfully effervescent as Soeur Constance. Dagmar Schellenberger is vocally assured as Blanche, and she is entirely convincing in this emotionally complex role. The men's roles are minimal in comparison with the women's, but Mario Bolognesi stands out for the naturalness of his singing and acting as the Father Confessor. Muti's pacing is superb and he brings out the inherent drama of the understated score. His reading is incisive and precise but the sound he draws from the orchestra is always rich and warm. This beautifully sung and acted version should be a must-see for anyone who loves the opera and would make a gripping introduction for anyone new to it.