Having resisted this opera for many years, I was persuaded by fellow reviewer Nancy Eckert to sample its charms and I took the plunge, opting for the obvious choice of this classic 1958 mono recording, newly re-issued with a third CD-ROM offering a synopsis and a libretto with English translation. It's certainly more approachable than many a contemporary work even if the ragbag style at times seems a little fractured and fragmented; it nearly did for Poulenc who by and large is not a composer whose music I much relish - but this is a very different, being a highly taut, dramatic work based on historical events and far removed from the wispier, more flippant style for which Poulenc is better known. I read Georges Bernanos' "Journal d'un curé de campagne" as a teenager during A level French and am struck by the directness and economy of his words here.
The mono sound is really very good for so venerable a recording which should have been in stereo given when it was made; a bit dry and boxy but somehow that's apt for the era in which it was written and first performed. However, EMI wrongly label it as stereo and it's not. Its advantages are obvious: a totally idiomatic French cast singing with pellucid diction and a real sense of French style whereby a somewhat nasal vocal production seems wholly apt. The conducting is fluid and flexible, and even if the orchestra is a bit distant that allows due prominence to the voices. There are some striking singers here, not least the strong Prieure of Denise Scharley which contrasts so effectively with the fragile, almost tremulous Blanche of Denise Duval and the celebrated Rita Gorr as Mère Marie. As ever, I am bemused by her fans' adulation of Crespin's rather acidulous soprano; here at only 31 years old her voice already has a worn and harsh quality but she is certainly a committed vocal actress and brings La nouvelle Prieure vividly to life.
The final "Salve Regina" guillotine scene provides a fitting and famous climax, something of a coup de théâtre with that regular, chilling thump replicating the fall of the guillotine blade. Ultimately Poulenc's idiom is not one which I prize but it's hard to imagine a more convincing advocacy of the opera than this classic recording.