I was somewhat underwhelmed by my first encounter with Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. Watching this recording of a 2004 La Scala production by Robert Carsen really opened my eyes. It’s the conducting that makes it I think, Riccardo Muti seems to find much more in the score than Jan Latham-Koenig. There are passages of great meditative beauty interspersed with quite shocking violence, all within an essentially tonal framework. It’s very striking. He’s helped by the sound on the DVD which is exceptionally vivid and three dimensional, even using the LPCM stereo option, though the Dolby 5.1 track is even better.
Carsen’s production is spare even by Carsen standards. Much of the time the stage is completely bare and at others there are just symmetrical rows of benches or a single chair. During much of the piece the chorus forms a crowd who surround the action in an increasingly sinister way. The visual interest comes from the almost geometric arrangement of the singers and a very creative lighting plot. It’s elegant and effective and well suited to a plot that isn’t exactly action packed.
There are some very good performances from the principals too. Dagmar Schellenberger succeeds in projecting the “always on the edge of cracking up” nature of Blanche de la Force. Anja Silja uses her decades of experience to create a really effective and moving Madame de Croissy. This surely is one of the greatest roles for an older female singer. Barbara Dever is rock solid as Mère Marie de l’Incarnation and Laura Aikin is excellent in the smaller part of Souer Constance and truly moving in the fatal finale. This scene is handled super effectively by Carsen and it makes a splendid ending to a very strong production. Among the men the standout is Mario Bolognesi as L’aumonier.
The video direction is by Carlo Battistoni and it’s the weakest element of the disk. He tends to focus heavily on individual singers even when there is a lot going on and it rather undermines the abstract aloofness of Carsen’s production. It’s not actively bad the way some recent Met broadcasts have been, it just seems rather out of sympathy with what’s happening on stage. Other aspects of the disk are fine. The picture is very good DVD quality though with rather a lot of darkish scenes the extra clarity of Blu-ray would have helped (but this is a 2004 recording). There are no extras and the documentation is limited to a short essay, a track listing and a synopsis. There are English, French, German, Italian and Spanish subtitles.