There are two operas which always leave me in tears at the end: La Bohème and Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmèlites. And surely Dialogues has the most effective final coup de théâtre of any in the repertoire. I have never seen or heard a bad production of it. This DVD of the 2004 production from La Scala is no exception. It is simply magnificent. Begin with the performance by Anja Silja as the old and ailing Madame de Croissy, whose death in Act I sets the plot in motion. Silja was 64 when she sang in this production and her acting, as always, is riveting. Even the threadbare quality of her voice is apt for the dying prioress. She is surrounded by singers who are also marvelous. Although I'd only ever heard of one of them -- Dagmar Schellenberger making her acclaimed La Scala début as Blanche de la Force; vocally she is superb, dramatically she makes the growth of her character believable -- there is not a weak member of the cast. American soprano Gwynne Geyer makes a strong and touching Madame Lidoine, the new prioress. American contralto Barbara Dever is an equally effective Mère Marie. Soeur Constance, the young novice who enters the convent at the same time as Soeur Blanche, is sung by American coloratura Laura Aikin. She does not have quite the chatty insouciance the part requires but her singing, particularly in Acts II and III, is spot on. Blanche's brother, the Chevalier de la Force, is sung effectively by tenor Gordon Gietz, as is Blanche's father by bass Christopher Robertson. Mario Bolognesi as the Father Confessor is fine. He's not only the only tenor in the cast, but also the only Italian singer in an important role, surely an oddity at La Scala.
This production of Dialogues originated at the Netherlands Opera, staged by the brilliant minimalist director Robert Carsen. Onstage action is often hieratic, quite appropriately so, and is particularly effective in the final scene -- where the nuns go one after the other to their death by guillotine -- which is staged differently than I've ever seen it. I won't ruin it by saying more than that; you must see it for yourself. Stage design is minimalist, with only monochromatic backdrops, spare furniture and props downstage, and Wieland Wagner-like lighting, stunningly effective. Costumes by Falk Bauer are primarily in black and white except for the splashes of color in the clothes of the Marquis and the Chevalier. The mob is entirely in black, the nuns in typical black-and-white until the very end.
In this production Riccardo Muti's musical direction reminds us what a superb musician he is. One could not have asked for better playing from the La Scala orchestra, nor for better musical support of the singers.
All in all, this is an extraordinarily effective production and, true to form, I was dissolved in tears at the end. Once again I aver that 'Dialogues des Carmélites' is one of the greatest of twentieth-century operas and this production helps to cement that opinion.
Sound: DD 5.1, LPCM Stereo; Picture format: 16:9 NTSC; Subtitles in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish; Liner notes in English, German, French; Region 0 (worldwide); Disc Format: DVD 9; Total time: 149mins.