Poulenc: Dialogues des Carmelites. La Scala 2004. Production: Robert Carsen. Cast: Dagmar Schellenberger (Blanche), Laura Aikin (Constance), Barbara Dever (Mére Marie), Anja Silja (Mme de Croissy). Conductor: Riccardo Muti. More information here.
This 2004 La Scala production of the Dialogues des Carmelites is simply close to ideal. And the aesthetically beautiful and simplistic Robert Carsen production was deservedly elected opera DVD of the year by the BBC music magazine last year.
Poulenc´s music is simple and beautiful as well as tonal and easily accessible, though not without disturbing undertones, effectively underlined by the Scala Orchestra superbly conducted by Riccardo Muti.
The opera takes place during the French revolution, and is the story of the young aristocratic woman Blanche, struggling with a fear of death, who joins the Carmelite Order. Through her meeting with the old prioress and the other nuns, Blanche overcomes her fear of death to a degree that she volunteers to follow her fellow sisters to the guillotine when they are apprehended by the ”revolutionary” forces at the end.
The stage is empty, all wear 18th century dress, and Robert Carsen emphasizes the human drama with contrasts in light and colouring as the only stage effects.
All the (predominately female) cast are excellent, in particular Dagmar Schellenberger as Blanche, who delivers a compelling portrait dramatically as well as vocally, as well as Anja Silja (the old prioress) who dominates her scenes by strong presence. The scene between Blanche and the old prioress as well as the death of the old prioress are the absolute highlights of this production. Also strong performances from Laura Aikin and Barbara Dever in a cast without weak links.
Anja Silja is shattering in Mme de Croissy´s death scene:
The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):
Dagmar Schellenberger: 5
Laura Aikin: 5
Anja Silja: 5
Robert Carsen´s staging: 5
Riccardo Muti: 5
Overall impression: 5