Dialogues des carmélites


Francis Poulenc Dialogues des carmélites (Dialogues of the Carmelites) opera to a libretto by the composer. Directed 2010 by Dmitri Tcherniakov at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich. Stars Alain Vernhes (Marquis de la Force), Susan Gritton (Blanche de la Force), Bernard Richter (Chevalier de la Force), Sylvie Brunet (Madame De Croissy), Soile Isokoski (Madame Lidoine), Susanne Resmark (Mère Marie), Hélène Guilmette (Sœur Constance), Heike Grötzinger (Mère Jeanne), Anaïk Morel (Sœur Mathilde), Kevin Conners (Chaplain), Ulrich Ress (First Commissioner), John Chest (Second Commissioner), Christian Rieger (Officier), Levente Molnár (Jailor), Rüdiger Trebes (Thierry, a Lackey), and Oscar Quezada (Monsieur Javelinot). Kent Nagano conducts the Bayerische Staatsoper Orchestra and Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper (Chorus Master Andrés Máspero). Set design by Dmitri Tcherniakov; costume design by Elena Zaytseva; lighting by Gleb Filshtinksy; dramaturgy by Andrea Schönhofer; directed for TV by Andy Sommer. Released 2011, disc has dts 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: D

Special note: see the comments dated October 22, 2015 and January 9, 2016 at the end of this story.

Dialogues des carmélites premiered in 1957. As you can see from the first screen shot below, the libretto itself states that the actual events took place around 1792:

But I doubt that many (if any) productions of this opera have been done as costume dramas with aristocrats wearing white-powered wigs and a guillotine on the stage at the end. It's a modern opera more concerned with spiritual and psychological matters than strict historical accuracy. We now have two good "traditional" versions of the opera from directors Olivier Py and Nikolaus Lehnhoff, and both of them use abstract sets depicting a convent with nuns in traditional habits and civilians in generic modern street clothes. Now we turn our attention to a more radical version from Dmitri Tcherniakov, a supernova in the constellation Eurotrash.

To be fair, Tcherniakov does not in this production use typical Eurotrash devices such as women carrying dead tunas on their shoulders or characters standing around on the stage whom we know from the plot to be somewhere else. Nor does Tcherniakov make big changes in the libretto or music. The words and music are substantially if not entirely all there. What Tcherniakov does to make himself controversial is to divorce his mise-en-scène and personenregie from the libretto and music to the point that he creates a new opera. And he does this no matter how absurd his version may be when lined up with the actual words of the text.

This is not dangerous when Tcherniakov uses centuries-old material in the public domain. But he was flirting with losing a lawsuit when he started messing with the Dialogues, which is still protected by copyright law in most places. And in France and Germany, even after you get production rights, certain inalienable moral rights may limit changes you can make to the material even if you don't touch the libretto or music. A bit more on that later. For now, let's see what Tcherniakov did to the action on stage. (If you don't already know this opera, you might want to read my reviews on the Olivier Py and Nikolaus Lehnhoff productions to give you a decent idea what the opera is supposed to be about.)

Tcherniakov begins with an empty stage on which a bunch of people are milling about making a certain young woman sick with existentialist angst. The woman is, of course, Blanche de la Force (Susan Gritton). Then the stage empties. Next we meet Blanche's father, the Marquis de la Force (Alain Vernhes), and her brother, the Chevalier de la Force (Bernard Richter), discussing Blanche and the strange fear that plagues her:


Blanche has made a big decision:


Blanche goes for an interview with the nuns. But the hut she approaches looks more like a pavilion at a summer camp or a rural commune than a Catholic convent. The hut is a tiny set in the middle of the vast stage. The timbers supporting the roof constantly interrupt the field of view of the HD cameras. The "walls" are made of window-screen wire in a way that seriously degrades most of images in the rest of the video. This is sabotage inspired by artistic vandalism or, at best, philosophical solipsism (how I see it is the only way to see it):

The sabotage continues. The nuns don't have religious habits to wear. I wondered, "Does the Catholic church sponsor lay communes?" But the libretto, which has many references to the Catholic Order of Carmelite nuns, quickly dispels such speculation. In this opera, the nuns just dress like farmers or hippies. Blanche states her reason for asking to join the Order:

The Prioress, Madame Croissy (Sylvie Brunet), explains that there are no heroics at the Order---but only prayer. I don't recall ever seeing a fat nun. (I can tolerate a fat Aida or even a fat Violetta, but not a fat nun.) Also, in the picture below, you can see the wire screening that covers the hut. It's much more noticeable on my TV display than it is here:

Blanche is accepted as a novice and she meets another novice, Sister Constance (Hélène Guilmette), who frolics about like a fourth-grader (more of the wire screen):

In the next two screen shots, Mère Marie (Susanne Resmark), the second in command, is seen in the background. She is even fatter than Croissy. We see the gruesome death of Croissy, which is supposed to foreshadow the death of the most of the nuns later in their martyrdom. (But as we will see later, Tcherniakov is not going to let the nuns die):

Here Sister Constance gets into the "transfer of grace" theme that is the central concept in the libretto. She sings this through a tiny "window" built into the set:


I'm not Catholic, and I don't know a lot about their practices. But I can't see Catholics singing the Ave Maria this way:

Here's a Priest without a black jacket and collar:

You can already see this production is loaded with stage actions that don't match the libretto. Maybe the silliest example of this follows the scene where a Commissioner tells the women that they have to leave the convent and abandon their traditional nuns' habits:

Then Mère Marie (remember, she's a nun) strips to her big bra to demand the civilian clothes that she and all the other women are already wearing:

Now Mère Marie promotes the vow of martyrdom. Tcherniakov and the folks who like this production apparently think that the Carmelite nuns were fanatics who committed mass suicide. But the libretto carefully explains the Catholic view of martyrdom several times as follows: It is a sin to seek martyrdom because that is just a dramatic way to commit suicide. But a Catholic nun may vow to never abandon her Order with its mission of prayer. Then it is up to God to determine the consequences. To avoid any risk, all a nun had to do was to go home:

The nuns are asked to take the vow for the preservation of the Church  . . .:

Now Tcherniakov dives off the top of the cliff in a silent scene that's not related to anything in the historical facts or the libretto. Mère Marie gives a paper to a Commissioner with the names of the nuns who are still in the Order. In history, Mère Marie escaped being arrested by a quirk of fate. In the libretto, she wants to join her sisters at the prison because she took the vow with them. But her superiors order her to continue living under cover because to join the sisters at that point would be committing suicide. (God spared her so she could later write up the true story of the Carmelite martyrdom.):

The nuns on the list are arrested. This Revolutionary Government doesn't use the guillotine. Instead the nuns are imprisoned in their old hut, which has been boarded up and equipped to execute them with poison gas. What about the view that the nuns have decided to commit mass suicide? Well, there is nothing in the libretto to support this. The nuns were been expelled from their convent. Where would they find the sophisticated gear required to build a gas chamber for a mass killing?

Why do I think the paper Mère Marie gave the Commissioner had a list of the names of the nuns? Well here we see the Commissioner with the same paper declaring names of the nuns who are condemned to death:

The authorities surround the hut, which has been sealed up. Since the government condemned the nuns to death, it would seem logical that the government has turned on the gas. But suddenly Blanche appears to break down the door. Why don't the police stop her? Blanche enters the hut to drag all her sisters out. The libretto calls for all the sisters to die, but now all are saved:

After all the sisters are out, Blanche reenters the hut!  Why would she do that? After a few moments there is an explosion, and we assume that Blanche is killed. This is the most absurd event of all in this bizarre production. A gas that did not explode when concentrated inside the enclosed room will not explode (if it ever could) after the door is opened and all the people and much of the gas in the chamber has been evacuated:

Tcherniakov's changes to the opera were more than just illogical and inane. They were also offensive to the literary successors of both Poulenc and Georges Bernanos (who wrote the play Poulenc modified for his libretto). Tcherniakov first produced his Dialogues in 2010 at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich. The video we now review was made then and released in 2011. When the Bayerische Staatsoper revived the production in 2012, the Poulenc and Bernanos successors brought suit in France to stop the show on the grounds that it violated the moral right of the successors to insure the artistic integrity of the story as it had been envisioned by Poulenc and Bernanos. Both artists intended with their work to honor the martyrdom of the Carmelite nuns and to hold up their sacrifice for modern audiences to contemplate. By picturing the nuns as survivors, Tcherniakov debouched the whole work.

The court had no relief for the plaintiffs on such short notice. The production continued as scheduled except that a note was put in the program in which the literary successors denounced the Tchernakov ending. That was several years ago, and I've not been able to find any further information about this case. My hunch would be that the case has not been settled and that it's unlikely anyone else would finance another revival of the Tcherniakov version.

What to make of this mess? Dialogues des Carmélites is a highly religious work. To devout Catholics, the Tcherniakov version might seem blasphemous. I'm not very religious. But with my Protestant Christian background, I find this title sacrilegious and in bad taste.

Of course, I must as a citizen protected by free speech hasten to declare that Tcherniakov should have the legal right to produce this unless it violates the copyright rules. It would appear to me that Tcherniakov probably did violate the artistic integrity of the Poulenc/Bernanos libretto and that its production should not be allowed under French law until the work falls into the public domain or the literary successors give up.

I get the impression that the vaunted French concept of moral rights is more illusion (that French intellectuals can brag about) than a practical law with real-world consequences. Finally, I get one more impression from this strange production and video. I keep reading how the market for the fine arts is shrinking and opera houses are endangered all over the world. H'mm, maybe in Germany there are too many opera houses!

Now for a grade. The only good thing about this title is the passionate acting skill shown by the singers in executing Tcherniakov's vision. In every other respect, both the versions we have from directors Olivier Py and Nikolaus Lehnhoff are vastly superior. You would not want to invest in this weak and perverse title unless you have a special reason, which gets it a "D" grade on this website.

Update on 2015-10-30 by Henry McFadyen Jr.

Within the last week or so, a French appeals court held that the Tcherniakov version of Dialogue des carmélites did violate the moral rights of the heirs of both George Bernanos (who wrote the original form of the libretto) and Poulenc. It appears the court enjoined BelAir from selling in the future its published recordings of the opera, including the Blu-ray version (BAC461). The skimpy stories I've seen (in French) don't speak of other relief (such as money damages) against BelAir or discuss the implications of this for third parties (like me with my offending copy of BAC461 on my shelf). From what little I know about copyright law in Europe, it would appear that the French court made the correct decision under clear precedent in French law since the time of the French Revolution. The heirs have a moral victory but probably feel frustrated why it took so long. In other countries like the US, the "fair use" exception to copyright infringement may well have protected Tcherniakov (assuming the heirs were careless enough to licence him to produce the opera in the wild west). Since my copy of BAC461 is on a Texas bookshelf, I'll not lose any sleep over this.

Update on 2016-01-09 by Henry McFadyen Jr.

The Bavarian State Opera scheduled a 2nd revival of this production for 4 performances in January and February 2016. On January 9, 2016, I read in Slipped Disc that the heirs have opposed this afresh just as they opposed the 1st revival in 2012. It was also reported (sort of) in the the Slipped Disc story that there is an appeal going on in France of the heirs' victory in the French trial court that enjoined sale of the video recording. The outcome of all this depends on esoteric intellectual property laws in Europe, and there's little point in speculating on this here. But from what I understand, it would seem the heirs have a decent case under French law and that the Bavarian State Opera is now skating much closer to the edge of the ice.