POULENC: Dialogues des Carmélites
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POULENC: Dialogues des Carmélites

spacer Petibon, Gens, Piau, Plowright, Koch; Lehtipuu; Chorus of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Philharmonia Orchestra, Rhorer. Production: Py. Erato 
08256-462202 (2 DVDs), 166 mins., subtitled

CarmelitesDVD

Critics and audiences at Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées accorded a triumph to conductor Jérémie Rhorer, director Olivier Py and their strong cast for their production of Poulenc’s 1957 masterpiece. Though certain details of Py’s classy, convincing direction and Pierre-André Weitz’s decor may get marginalized in the filming, it remains a powerful, musically rewarding account of this extraordinary piece. Impressively, this DVD was filmed at a single performance, on December 21, 2013 — three weeks after the premiere. 

Py differentiates the leading figures with skill. Weitz’s designs are of no fixed period but rich in striking religious and art-historical imagery, sometimes using silhouette. Bertrand Killy’s lighting is phenomenal. In the shattering, here nonrealistic final scene, the Carmelites — arrayed virtually as angels — seem to walk toward a starry sky. The principals are well-known. An enjoyable aspect of this filming is the high percentage of francophone singers. Of the others, Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu (sounding healthier than he has in New York more recently) outstrips, in Gallic diction, British ex-soprano Rosalind Plowright, who as Croissy is committed and secure in midrange but sometimes atonal; her bedridden scenes memorably find her suspended ten feet up a wall.

Unlike the Met’s (also riveting) John Dexter production, this staging honors Poulenc’s three-act conception, making Croissy’s death and Blanche’s dropping the Christ Child the two mid-show “curtains.” (The first disc concludes with Act II.) Patricia Petibon, who’s on this issue’s cover, tends to be self-admiringly arch and “interesting” in her live and recorded work. Sometimes she emits a “blue note” attack more suitable to Poulenc’s cabaret songs, but her Blanche is uncommonly intriguing — masterful, moving in verbal and facial expression, and sonorous save for occasional edgy phrases. French mezzo Sophie Koch, her top easy and exciting and her every glance and intonation to the point, offers a great Marie. The wonderful soprano Véronique Gens must now carefully keep high notes short, but she still brings radiance and matchless inflection to Mme. Lidoine. Sandrine Piau banishes the decades separating her from the age of sixteen with a wonderfully sung, very movingly acted Constance. Rhorer brings out the score’s Mussorgskian dynamic contrasts. Subtitles come in French, German and well-rendered English. spacer 

DAVID SHENGOLD

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