Poulenc: Dialogues de Carmélites

COMPOSERS: Francis Poulenc
LABELS: Oehms Classics
ALBUM TITLE: Poulenc: Dialogues de Carmélites
WORKS: Dialogues de Carmélites
PERFORMER: Sally Matthews, Deborah Polaski, Heidi Brunner, Hendrickje van Kerckhove, Magdelena Anna Hofmann, Michelle Breedt, Christa Ratzenböck, Yann Beuron, Jean-Phillippe Lafont; Arnold Schoenberg Choir, ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra/Bertrand de Billy

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This recording is a conflation from two live performances given at the Theater an der Wien in 2008 and 2011. One can easily believe that the run of 2008 was unexpectedly successful: this is an honest, straightforward interpretation and it has become the norm for this work – as Poulenc himself realised, so far removed from a regulation opera – to turn audiences who have taken their seats in a state of rationally suspended disbelief into emotional wrecks.

But to put a live performance of the work on to disc brings problems, the most crucial of which is audibility of the text. The title was precisely chosen, and Poulenc, with his long experience as a composer of mélodies, assumes that every word will be heard, and understood. For the most part French pronunciation here is adequate, but it’s very hard for non-French singers, as in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, to capture the conversational nuances of rhythm and colouring. At times too the orchestra is simply too loud and words are drowned.

The most successful singers are mezzo-soprano Michelle Breedt who brings the right tone of sympathy to the role of Mère Marie, and soprano Hendrickje van Kerckhove whose Soeur Constance is delightfully scatty, though also wise beyond her years. But soprano Deborah Polaski is not imposing enough as the First Prioress, who needs to dominate in order for her bad death to be sufficiently shocking. The Viennese ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra plays with spirit, even if the string section lacks that essentially French bite and implacability.

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Roger Nichols