Francis Poulenc est né en 1899 à Paris. Bien qu'il ait suivi quelques cours de composition avec Charles Koechlin (1867-1950), Poulenc est un compositeur autodidacte. Il connaît à dix-huit ans une première réussite avec sa « Rhapsodie nègre », puis compose « Le Bestiaire » sur des poèmes de l'oeuvre éponyme de Guillaume Apollinaire. Il rencontre notamment Claude Debussy (1862-1918) et Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) et s'associe au « Groupe des Six », groupe de compositeurs parrainé par Erik Satie (1866-1925) et qui comprend également Louis Durey (1888-1979), Arthur Honegger (1892-1955), Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983) et Georges Auric (1899-1983). En 1935, consécutivement à la mort accidentelle de son ami, le compositeur Pierre-Octave Ferroud (1900-1936), il vit un profond retour à la foi catholique, et se tourne alors souvent vers des compositions d'inspiration religieuse. Il est mort à Paris en 1963.
Parmi ses oeuvres majeures, on peut citer les « Soirées de Nazelles » pour piano, une Sonate, un Capriccio et « L'Embarquement pour Cythère » pour deux pianos, cinq Sonates pour piano et instrument à codes (violon, violoncelle) ou instrument à vent (flûte, hautbois, clarinette), un Trio pour hautbois, basson et piano, un Sextuor pour piano et quintette à vent, « Aubade » pour piano et orchestre, un Concerto pour piano, un Concerto pour clavecin, un Concerto pour orgue, cordes et timbales, et un Concerto pour deux pianos, « L'Histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant » pour récitant et piano, les « Litanies à la Vierge noire de Rocamadour », un « Gloria » pour soprano solo, choeur mixte et orchestre, un « Stabat mater » pour soprano, choeur mixte et orchestre, deux Opéras, le « Dialogues des Carmélites » sur un texte de Georges Bernanos, et « La Voix humaine » adaptée d'une pièce de Jean Cocteau, ainsi que de nombreuses Mélodies sur des poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire, de Paul Eluard, ou bien encore de Jean Cocteau.
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One of the Mid-Twentieth Century's Greatest Operatic Works7 mai 2006
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I became interested in Poulenc's DIALOGUES des CARMELITES long before I heard a note of the opera. I was twelve or thirteen at the time and was looking something up in an encyclopedia and I came across the entry for opera. Glossy photographs accompanied the entry and a stark black and white photograph of singers dressed as nuns lying prostrate on the floor piqued my curiosity. I'm sure it was a number of years later before I ever heard a note of the opera itself, but that image has remained with me for many years and it may be a reason why the opera has fascinated me over the years.
The story of the opera is about a Carmelite convent that was suppressed during the French Revolution and its nuns, who resisted the order of suppression were martyred. The story has become part of French culture and it caught the attention of Francois Poulenc, a composer who had moderate success during his lifetime but up to that time had not composed anything that would outlive him. DIALOGUES turned out to be his masterpiece. The powerful music, with a lush and fluid sound, a far cry form much of what was written for the operatic stage in the 1950's, is aided by a powerful libretto written by none other than Georges Bernanos, the great French writer who had the literary talent to write a wonderful story and the an understanding of Catholicism and a spirituality that can only come from a person of authentic faith.
This recording was the first studio recording of the work and the cast includes some of the singers who performed in the work's premiere. Poulenc himself was also an advisor when the work was recorded, so perhaps this may be one of the few operatic recordings that we have that is true to the composer's intentions since the composer was involved in the recording. The cast includes one of opera's greatest voices, Regine Crespin as well as one of the best known mezzos of the French repertoire Rita Gorr. While the recording has been remastered, listeners will immediately notice it was first recorded in mono so it has an aged sound to it. Yet this should not be a deterrant because it has dramatic intensity. Very often I listen to opera while doing something else, and I will have to admit I can be working away as some of opera's most gory death scenes occur and barely notice. Yet whenever I listen DIALOGUES and hear the nuns sing "Salve Regina" and hear the chorus diminished one by one as the nuns are executed, and hear the guillotine (a percussion representation of the guillotine, of course) I always stop and pause. Even the total destruction of DIE GOTTERDAMMERUNG doesn't cause me to pause the way DIALOGUES can.
If your purchasing this recording, you may also want to consider reading M. Owen Lee's commentary on this work in his volume A SEASON OF OPERA FROM ORPHEUS TO ARIADNE. In this entry Fr. Lee combines all that makes this a wonderful opera.
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Comparison of recent Kurt Nagano and original cast Derveaux "Carmelites"13 avril 2012
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I have been listening to two recordings of Francis Poulenc's 1957 opera "Dialogues f the Carmelites", the 1992 Kent Nagano-led version issued on Virgin and what amounts to an original cast recording from 1958 with Denise Duval and conducted by Pierre Derveaux, a group of performers who largely premiered the opera. Though the two groups of performers take contrasting approaches, the bottom line is that both are very good and will draw you in.
The Derveaux EMI recording is quicker, lighter and very musical. It runs about 10 minutes less than the Nagano, which is indicative of the faster tempi Derveaux takes. The singers are more consistent than in the Nagano but I actually don't think quite as good. Denise Duval is the soprano Poulenc for whom wrote the "Dialogues", as well as many of his later vocal works such as his last opera, the 1959 monodrama "The Human Voice", so we can assume she interprets the part the way Poulenc wished. Star soprano Regine Crespin takes the role of the new Prioress and does good work. Though the sound doesn't equal the Nagano version, it is very good for its period; its age should not dissuade you from listening to the set. Listeners who think the Nagano version drags and concentrates on the details might prefer this set, which flows with deft pacing.
The Nagano Virgin recording is slower, more sensuous, is in very good sound, with maybe the leading attraction being a series of stunning solo performances. Catherine Dubosc, as the lead, Blanche, is I think better than Denise Duval, with a beautiful voice and a dramatically compelling rendition of the torn central character. With male stars like Jose Van Dam (the Father) and Francois Le Roux (the Jailer) and female stars like Rachel Yakar (repeating Crespin's role as the new Prioress), who are all excellent, maybe the best supporting singer is Blanche's brother, Jena-Luc Viala, who shines, especally in the emotional and affecting farewell scene at the end of Act II, where he and Blanche say good bye to each other forever in the cloister. Rita Gorr, who appears in both the Derveaux and Nagano recordings (in different parts) is affecting and musically strong but not quite in technical control at all times. While not quite as musical as the Devreaux, Nagano's cool, dispassionate style - which some find a negative in his Gustav Mahler recordings - is well-suited for the "Dialogues." The sound is very good although there is some harshness in the upper registers.
The "Dialogues of the Carmelites" is an opera that just sucks me in. The sensuous music combines with the theme of personal renunciation and Catholic Grace colliding with the senseless violence of the French Revolution's Terror, in which a radical political agenda seems almost inevitably to fall from utopianism to demented violence, to make a great opera. Based on a 1949 screenplay by right-wing French writer George Bernanos, "Dialogues" was likely making a controversial political statement in the 1950s, a time when radical leftism was de rigeur in French intellectual circles, by taking the viewpoint of the Carmelites. That political message has essentially disappeared today with widespread consensus on the often tragic consequences of leftist revolutions. "Dialogues" also was created for an audience with clear memories of the divisive government-sponsored anticlericalism that France experienced in the first decades of the 20th-century. Combine that with Poulenc's continued use of clear tonality and clear, memorable melodic material in a context where avant-garde composers - in one sense, the musical equivalent to the Jacobins - had lain down the gauntlet and moved to a dissonant, atonal systematization, "Dialogues" comes across as a self-consciously conservative statement.
Social context aside, if I was to name one truly great opera from after 1945, "Dialogues" would be the first to come to mind. Any opera fans out there unfamiliar with this opera should listen to it. I'm not saying it's on the level of "Don Giovanni," but it is on the level below that, with operas like "La traviata" or "Barber of Seville," to name a couple. It is moving, beautiful, and thought-provoking. Both recordings I listened to are excellent and vividly bring to life the complex themes and rich music of the "Dialogues."