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Affronted French heirs seek to stop Munich revival of Poulenc opera, demanding more dead nuns

The heirs of Francis Poulenc and his librettist Georges Bernanos have filed an injunction to prevent the Bavarian State Opera in Munich from reviving Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging of Dialogues des Carmelites. In the staging, Tcherniakov reinterprets the nuns’ execution so that Blanche actually saves the lives of the nuns and is the only one to die.

The heirs insist that the death of all the nuns is integral to a proper understanding of the work and have filed an injunction in a French court.
The staging, first put on in 2010, is being revived for three performances on October 28, November 1 and 4, with Sally Matthews as Blanche.
The court is not expected to reach its decision before then, so the performances will go ahead. Bavarian State Opera has agreed to insert a flyer into
the programme informing the audience of Poulenc’s and Bernanos’ heirs objections.

Here’s the German press release:

Gerichtsverfahren um Tcherniakovs Inszenierung von „Dialogues des
Die Bayerische Staatsoper befindet sich kurz vor der Wiederaufnahme
von Dialogues des Carmélites in einem Gerichtsverfahren mit den Erben
von Komponist Francis Poulenc und Librettist Georges Bernanos. Die
Nachkommen sind der Auffassung, dass die Umsetzung der Schlussszene
durch den Regisseur Dmitri Tcherniakov das Werk von Bernanos und
Poulenc abwandelt und entstellt. In der Neuinterpretation des
russischen Regisseurs, die im März 2010 Premiere hatte, rettet die
Hauptfigur Blanche de la Force ihre Mitschwestern vor dem Tod und
kommt als Einzige ums Leben.

Vor einem französischen Gericht ist eine Klage anhängig, mit der
weitere Aufführungen in dieser Inszenierung untersagt werden sollen.
Nach Meinung der Erben muss der Märtyrertod aller Nonnen zwingend
szenisch umgesetzt werden. Ansonsten würden Deutungsmöglichkeiten
eröffnet, die der Kernaussage des Werkes nicht gerecht würden. Mit
einer Entscheidung des Gerichts vor der Wiederaufnahme ist nicht zu
rechnen. Die Wiederaufnahme von Dialogues des Carmélites ist
allerdings nicht gefährdet.

Auf Wunsch der Erben nimmt die Bayerische Staatsoper einen Hinweis auf
das laufende Gerichtsverfahren in die Programmbücher auf und
informiert die Presse entsprechend.

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  1. If only Wagner’s heirs would step in to block crass reinterpretations of the Ring at Bayreu–, oh, wait…

    • The difference between Wagner and Poulenc is that, according to French law, Poulenc’s works are still under copyright, and will not fall into the public domain until 2033 (since poulenc died in 1963). So the heir’s case is very likely to succeed, although it will be totally inefficient as far as Munich is concerned. If a French court finds for them (and it most likely will), it will just prevent the importation of Tcherniakov’s production in France, unless it is altered accordingly to the heir’s desires.

      In contrast, if Wagner’s heirs do not like a production of, say, Tristan, they may scream as much as they want, but they will be powerless under law.

      • That’s interesting about courts being able to decide on an interpretation of a copyright work. Is French law peculiar in this regard? I have never heard of such a thing in UK law or even German law… What’s the actual basis for complaint? I mean, copyright isn’t being infringed is it? and I assume Munich are paying the correct royalties and materials hire charges. Is the publisher involved in this case?

        Re Wagner, I was just making the rather (tongue-in-) cheeky comment that Wagner’s heirs are in fact the very ones responsible for some of the crass productions … :-)

        • Simon Morgan says:

          this reminds me of the various legal actions Samuel Beckett’s estate took against different theatre companies that didn’t follow Beckett’s stage directions to the letter.
          There’s some interesting info specificially about the Beckett cases at the following link:

          It’ll be interesting to see how the French court handles the Poulenc case.

        • IANAL, but AFAIK this is a problem for example with Bertolt Brecht’s plays in Germany. Brecht died in 1956, so copyright won’t expire until 2026, and his daughter Barbara Brecht-Schall watches carefully for theatres in Germany (and maybe abroad as well, I don’t know) not to violate the “Werktreue”-principle.

      • A quick note, EU copyright law also works in the heirs favor and as both France and Germany are members of the EU, the French decision should also take precedent in Germany.

  2. No no, no sorry sorry; I was a little bit too allusive. Of course it’s not copyright infringement! but part of French copyright law includes what is called “droit moral”, a moral right, if you like. The heirs (the “ayant-droits”) keep a moral right over the work as long as they have the copyright, which mean they can refuse to allow the performance of the work. I know it sounds preposterous for a common law lawyer, but that’s the case in French law.

    Typical case : Otto Preminger’s “Carmen Jones” : the heirs of Mailhac and Halevy (not those of Bizet, as is often believed) had the projection of “Carmen Jones” forbidden in France, because Carmen, believe it or not, was still under copyright, and they did not like, among many things, the idea of an all-Black cast. (“I mean, we’re talking about Carmen, not Progy and Bess, for chrissakes!”). The Court found for them. The film had to be smuggled into France, and the cinephiles could only watch it in secret.

    Re Wagner: could not agree more.

    • On one hand, I like very much the idea of a living artist being able to exert a moral right over their creation, regardless of whether a publisher / record company / opera house owns the commercial rights. This is the principle of being able to withdraw your labour (or the fruits of your labour in this case), which is something composers cannot exercise in any other way.

      On the other hand, I don’t like to think that my descendants (who may or may not be artistic in their own right) can exert artistic control over my work, perhaps for non-artistic reasons hiding under the guise of “Werktreue”. I don’t really see how a moral right can exist after the creator has passed on, although I get that copyright needs to be preserved for a good period (to allow those who invested in the artist to recoup their investment, regardless of the life/death status of the artist)

      On the third hand… this reminds me of someone who once said “please bring me a one-handed civil servant!”

  3. If one listens to, for example the 1999 DVD of the “Dialogues”, by the National Opera of the Rhine, one realizes that having Blanche save the lives of all the other nuns is a complete mutilation of the upera’s conception. She is joining her companions in death, not coming in like some gallant savior to sacrifice herself. It’s almost as bad as changing the ending of Othello, to allow Iago to live and put him in charge of the garrrison in Cyprus. In fact this makes more sense-he’s easily the best military strategist in the whole play!

    • In both Shakespeare’s Othello and the libretto of Verdi’s Otello, Iago does survive to the end of the work. It is not clear in the Shakespeare that he will die from the torture he will endure, though he probably would. In fact, one of the best things that Zeffirelli did in his movie of Otello was the rather spectacular moment that Otello kills Iago (presumably the wound was fatal, given the weapon used).


    • Stephen Carpenter says:

      I remember seeing the Met (NYC) production (via Live from Lincoln Center) and how relentlessly moving forward almost like an automaton the music and staging were. Through my tears my heart ached to make it stop- It was compounded as the “citizens” joined the “Salve Regina” of course too late and powerless. So- how can it be different and still have that uncompromising edge that is established almost from the beginning? And- what would be the motivation to “handle and paw” at someone else’s creative endeavor? I’m quite confused by this. Have I missed something?

  4. Is there something similar to the first amendment in France?

  5. Nice stinger at the end of that headline, Norman!

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