The shocking, swooshing sound of an offstage guillotine slicing through a nun, Madame Lidoine’s neck, followed by the resounding thump of sharp metal against wood halts the Salve Regina in its tracks. The Mother Superior of the Convent at Compiègnes is dead.
The sudden silence onstage combines with the struck dumb horror of a packed house as the audience takes in the reality of what is happening. The Salve Regina resumes and fifteen more nuns meet Mme La Guillotine that day. So ends Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites.
As it actually happened on 17th July 1794, when the Carmelites of Compiègne Priory were rounded up, stripped of their religious names, summarily found guilty of being traitors to the French Republic, herded 15km to Paris, then martyred.
Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is a 1957 masterpiece. It may be grounded in French revolutionary terror, but tragically plays relevantly to audiences today. Taliban Kill Women for not Wearing Burqua screamed from front pages in August 2021, a two fingers to the Biden troop withdrawal announced that April. There have been similar atrocities since. Dialogues is very much an opera for today.
I don’t know how Metropolitan Opera Shops, who handle scenery and sound effects, figured out how to create the sound track of their unseen guillotine, but my guess is someone spent a long time in the Meatpacking district, listening to butchers whacking into carcasses. The audience is given no quarter. The sound is progressive, visceral, tactile. And the concluding thump leaves no room for doubt, or a path back to sanity. The audience is left stranded on the same shore as the victims.
Poulenc’s opera, aimed at establishing his serious credentials rather than just as a composer of pleasant salon works, premiered at La Scala, Milan in 1957. It was based on a play, The Fearless Heart, by George Bernanos, a French author, staunch Catholic and monarchist sympathiser.
His best known novels, Sous le Soleil de Satan and Journal d’un curé de campagne, feature a parish priest who combats evil and despair in the world, especially his beloved France. Bernanos blamed his country’s defeat and occupation by Germany in WWII as rooted in a sense of national defeatism he was determined to counter.
After self-imposed exile in Brazil during the war, from were he fired darts at the “traitorous” Vichy government, Bernanos came home at the request of General de Gaulle, but despaired at the spiritual exhaustion he saw gnawing at La France. Dialogues was his counter blast. A call to the colours of a bygone age, when principles mattered.
Poulenc wrote his own libretto, mostly in a narrative form supported by a luscious, rolling, score. There are only two conventional set pieces in the opera. The Requiem for the dead Mother Superior at the beginning of Act II and the famous Salve Regina, sung over a repeating phrase in the orchestra, as the nuns walk defiantly to their deaths in the final scene.
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Unapologetic for the tonal quality of the score – in an age where ear-grinding dissonance was fashionably au courant – Poulenc quipped, “You must forgive my Carmélites. It appears they can sing only tonal music.”
The composer uses easily recognisable musical motifs to identify characters, such as the sprightly dance tunes used to introduce the optimistic “happy nun”, Sister Constance, sung by Sabine Devieilhe, a French soprano, who was pertly perfect.
Devieilhe had serious points to get across, especially in her conversations with the principal character, Blanche de la Force and managed to deliver them with the lightest of touches. The audience really warmed to Sister Constance, as they would to Maria in the Sound of Music, and she received a huge ovation for her efforts.
Blanche has her four note fear motif which opens the proceedings and recurs throughout.
The cast was stellar. American soprano, Christine Goerke as Madame Lidoine, the newly elected Mother Superior who leads her sisters to the scaffold; Alice Coote, an English mezzo-soprano as her predecessor, Madame de Croissy, who dies in pain and despair at the end of Act I, going so far as to tear “the mask of belief” from her face. The first breathtaking moment of the opera.
Blanche, who in the immediately preceding scene had been discussing her fear of death with Constance while doing the ironing, is thunderstruck.
Coote delivered the most dramatic death of Madame de Croissy I can recall. It is the transformation in character, from serenely if crotchety believer to disillusioned agnostic that is difficult to pull off. Coote’s stagecraft was nothing short of miraculous. The ascending, increasingly manic music Poulenc wrote for the death scene hits a shrieking crescendo she scaled with ease.
Jamie Barton, an American mezzo-soprano – told you it was a stellar cast – sang Mother Marie. The role of Mother Marie is the fulcrum of the plot. In Act II, during a vigil for the dead prioress, she explains to Blanche, who is overcome by fear and a lack of understanding at the agonising death; “Perhaps people don’t die for themselves, but for others. Someone else will be surprised one day to find death easy.” As it turns out, that person is Blanche.
Blanche is sung by Ailyn Pérez, an American soprano, who has sung eight roles at the Met since her debut in 2015. She is a magnificent Blanche. Fully up to the high standard set by Isabel Leonard in the 2019 production. Bertrand de Billy was maestro of the massacre. The French conductor wove a tight sound tapestry round the dialogue and judged the moments of high drama perfectly.
Poulenc expressed the wish that the opera be performed in the language most familiar to the audience. In Manhattan, that would be English. Well, just about. The Met adhered to that instruction in 1987, but in 2019 and this production French was used. I’ve no idea why. The dialogue is so narrative that understanding of plot nuances would have been easier in English. Excellent surtitles in the back of the Met seats, but they were still a distraction.
The full synopsis can be found here. The opera turns on the hinge of Blanche’s fear. She was born prematurely after her mother’s carriage had been attacked by a mob. Her mother died in childbirth. Her ever-concerned brother, Chevalier de la Force, sung with dignity by Piotr Buszeswski, a Polish tenor, exudes concern, calling her “little rabbit”, a nickname that irritates her.
Fear leads her to the Carmélites, not a sound basis for a vocation, as the Prioress points out bluntly. Yet there is some positive quality in Blanche’s character that is recognised, admitting her to a novitiate.
Fear motivates her abandonment of her sisters when the avenging crowd of accusers gathers. She seeks refuge in her former home as a servant, thinking that is the last place she will be recognised and is offered a safe house by Mother Marie. By then, all the sisters have taken a vow of martyrdom.
Only when Constance is left alone at the foot of the guillotine, uncertain, does Blanche overcome her fear, step from the crowd, reassure her and follow her to the guillotine, taking up the strains of the Salve Regina. She assumes the easy death Madame de Croissy has bestowed on her.
The doctrine of the communion of saints threads through these lives, all interconnected in the service of God. The sacrificial acts of one nun can benefit another.
The opera is as much about the course of an individual’s life – Blanche – and the struggle to overcome an all possessing obsession as it is about the story of the Carmélite nuns. The themes follow complex intersecting tracks, eventually converging in a desperate, triumphant conclusion as the last note of the Salve Regina is cut off.
This John Dexter production, revived by Sarah Ina Meyers, rose to the occasion Poulenc demands, being stark, uncompromising and shorn of any frippery. It is almost impossible to believe the production premiered at the Met on February 5th 1977 – 46 years ago. Its simplicity has allowed it to stand the test of time. Dexter, an English film and opera director, died in 1990.
The stark, white crucifix stage on which the action is played out and upon which the nuns lie prostrate in black formation as the lights go up remains throughout the work. The opening scene in Blanche’s home, with her father, The Marquis de la Force, sung by Laurent Naouri, a French bass baritone, is created by the descent of a simple screen and use of a chair.
The convent parlour is conjured up by the simple device of dropping a metal latticed screen between the nuns and visitors. An atmosphere of revolutionary chaos is established by a 30 second sequence of an unruly crowd of Jacobins rushing across front stage waving tricolours. The audience’s minds’ eye is called into play.
Throughout, the almost constant presence of a large metal crucifix suspended high up rear stage is a reminder of the struggle between church and rapidly evolving republic.
Of the composer’s three operas – Les Mamelles and LaVoix Humaine are the others – Dialogues is by far the most ambitious. No love interest. No arias. Minimal use of the male voice. Intense focus on serious themes. There is only one joke. When Sister Constance reflects that 59 is a good age to die. Brought the house down. Where the average audience age was more like 79!
A friend of mine who takes the Midtown bus home from the opera pointed out that usually there is chatter amongst the eager, opera-going passengers. After Dialogues the bus was silent. He asked a fellow passenger what she thought of it. “Please, if you don’t mind, I can’t speak right now.” That tells of the power of opera, when it scales the dramatic heights conquered by this Dialogue de Carmélites.
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