Poulenc: Dialogues des Carmélites

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COMPOSERS: Poulenc
LABELS: INA Mémoire Vive
WORKS: Dialogues des Carmélites
PERFORMER: Felicity Lott, Régine Crespin, Geneviève Barrial, Pierre d’Hollander, Léonard Pezzino; Radio France Chorus, French National Orchestra/Jean-Pierre Marty
CATALOGUE NO: IMV 035
Terror within and the revolutionary Terror beyond. And when the nuns walk to their death in the final tableau and we hear the guillotine fall, each drop of the blade scrupulously written into the score, who can doubt that Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is a 20th-century masterpiece. A heart of darkness within us all and totalitarianism at our throats.

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All credit, then, to the enterprising Institut National de l’Audiovisuel for retrieving from its archives this remarkable recording of a live performance of Poulenc’s opera, and for remastering the original 1980 tapes so sensitively. For this is an opera that is all in its telling in front of a live audience. There’s much to be said for Kent Nagano’s Lyon Opera recording (Virgin) and for Pierre Dervaux’s EMI recording, but Jean-Pierre Marty conducting the French National Orchestra for Radio France has the emotional edge on his rivals.

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Above all it is Felicity Lott as Sister Blanche who makes the difference, her diction scrupulous and with such attention paid to those subtle sea changes in Poulenc’s gloriously tonal score. And Lott is so exact in her characterisation. This Blanche is terrified to her core from her first scene until her last with the unbending Mère Marie – Geneviève Barrial chilling in her spiritual absolutism. But the glory of this set is Régine Crespin as the old Prioress. The voice is a magnificent shadow of what it once was, but suffused with palpable terror as on her deathbed she struggles against her dreadful vision of the coming destruction of the convent. This is the art that transcends mere technique. Christopher Cook