There are those operas that you just can’t spoil and Les Dialogues des Carmélites is one of them. For Poulenc, melody is the centre of the universe. His music is so poignantly beautiful and his composition so expressive that you don’t really need a director.
The opera’s themes are sacrifice, martyrdom, revolutions and ideologies, but those are just the side lines, because the main theme is an all-devouring fear that makes it impossible to live or die: “Fear is a terrible disease. I was born of fear, in fear I live and in fear I shall die. Everyone despises fear, so I am condemned to be despised.
The world premiere of Dialogues des Carmélites took place on 26 January 1957 at La Scala in Milan, in an Italian translation. The cast reads like a ‘who’s who’ in the opera world, because, ask yourself: were there any bigger names in those days?
Blanche was sung by Virginia Zeani, a singer with a full, large and dramatic voice, that was suitable for both Violetta and Tosca. Marie was played by Gigliola Frazzoni, one of the best Minnies (La fanciulla del West) in history. And Madame Lidoine was given to Leyla Gencer.
With Fiorenza Cossotto, Gianna Pederzini, Eugenia Ratti and Scipio Colombo in the smaller roles, the opera sounded less lyrical than we are used to nowadays, almost veristic even. But that made the dramatic effect even more poignant.
In The Operatic PastCast, Virginia Zeani talks about Poulenc, the influence the opera has had on her life, her colleagues and the production in Milan. The entire performance from Milan, fantastically conducted by Nino Sanzogno, is on YouTube. Do not miss it!
The Paris premiere of Dialogues des Carmélites followed six months later. On 21 June 1957, the opera, now in French, was presented at the Théâtre National de l’Opéra. Blanche was sung by Poulenc’s beloved soprano Denise Duval. Duval’s voice (girlishly naive, light, almost ethereal) fitted Blanche like a glove. The rest of the cast, including Régine Crespin as Madame Lidoine and Rita Gorr as probably the best Mère Marie ever, was also chosen by Poulenc himself
Régine Crespin (Madame Lidoine) in “Mes chères filles”:
The orchestra was conducted by Pierre Dervaux and I can be very brief about him: there is no better. Full stop. (Warner 08256483211)