Laura Aiken (Soeur Constance), Barbara Dever (Mère Marie), Gwynne Geyer(Madame Lidoine), Dagmar Schellenberger (Blanche), Anja Silja (Madame de Croissy), Gordon Gietz (Le Chevalier), Mario Bolognesi (L’aumônier), Christopher Robertson (Le Marquis de la Force) Mario Bolognesi (L’aumônier) 

Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala c. Riccardo Muti p. Robert Carsen d. Michael Levine & Falk Bauer video director Carlo Battistoni 

TDK DVWW-OPDDC (149 minutes)


Poulenc’s masterwork, now just past its fiftieth birthday, has four versions available on DVD, and is one of a very select bunch of mid 20th century works that can be regarded as a repertory piece. Watching this performance, the thought occurs that its great strength is the neutral stance Poulenc takes on his characters, he is as non-judgemental as Verdi. Robert Carsen’s production is very alive to this, and yet the five principal nuns are not archetypes; it is a fascinating journey to see Barbara Dever’s Mere Marie, almost a stolidly down to earth district nurse at the start emerge as the most enigmatic of all. This is a strongly cast production, led by Riccardo Muti, not a name one associates with Poulenc. We get a brisk and punchy account of the score, that tends to hang fire in the first act, possibly because the big moments are not highlighted enough from the acres of expository parlando. The orchestral sound is sumptuous, Poulenc’s orchestration is fascinating, but the percussion and keyboard are, on occasion, too dominant. Anja Silja, as the Old Prioress delivers a powerhouse death scene, yet arguably her voice is monochrome and her French uninflected, so that the result is not as cathartic as one would expect. The tension of this scene is ruined by cutting away to Muti in the pit for the numbed conclusion.  It is the lesser known singers who really deliver: in particular Barbara Dever (a Met regular) who portrays a character increasingly out of her depth with splendidly intense tone and command of all registers, and Gwynne Geyer, a name new to me, who has a bright tone, yet exemplary soft-grained phrasing who makes something ineffably touching out of her farewell to the sisters in the prison cell. Dagmar Schellenberger is a strong Blanche, almost too strong willed in the first act, but who bravely plays against sympathy throughout the opera, she is conflicted, impossible and exasperating in equal measure. Laura Aikin as an unexpectedly thoughtful Constance completes a very strong quintet. The men are no ciphers either: both Christopher Robinson’s complacent Marquis and Gordon Gietz’s terrier-like Chevalier, who seems throughout to be on the edge of an engulfing anger, give rise to fascinating conjecture on Blanche’s home life. Robert Carsen’s production is hieratic and simple, but delivers unexpected insights, and visual coups, from the opening, with the Marquis and Chevalier hemmed in by a sullen semicircle or servants and revolutionaries, to the beautifully realized final scene that achieves a poetic and spiritual counterpoint to the gruesome realism of the guillotine. There are strong alternative versions on DVD, particularly from Opera du Rhin, but this is compelling and, once past the first act, very moving. 


© Julian Grant 2008