The opera takes place in Paris and Compiegne, 1789-94, at the time of the French Revolution.
Scene 1: The library of the Marquis de la Force. 1789.
The opera opens in a mood of great anxiety during the early days of the French Revolution. The Chevalier de la Force fears for his timid sister Blanche, who is easily frightened. He bursts into the library of his father, demanding "Where is Blanche"? A protesting crowd has held up her carriage on her way home from church services. In a breathless allegro expressing panic, the Chevalier's father, the Marquis, recalls the Royal Fireworks Panic in which he and his wife had been caught nineteen years earlier. His wife died giving birth to Blanche.
Both father and son worry about danger to Blanche. They know her as a sensitive girl who is so fearful of the world that she seems ill. The Chevalier is particularly worried about potential psychological harm. Blanche appears, seemingly composed although really terrified. The shifting and unrelated harmonies of her music betray her inner uncertainties. Afraid of the dark,
Blanche has always insisted on having candles. As a child, she used to say that every night she died, only to be reborn each morning. She makes a remark that puzzles both her father and brother, claiming that the only resurrection that has ever occurred is that of Christ's, at Easter, although for her every night is like Christ's Agony.
Suddenly, the shadow of a servant lighting the candles causes Blanche to panic and scream on her way to bed. She emerges to announce to her father and brother that she will enter the Carmelite Order and become a nun; the world is more than she can handle. She concludes her statement with "Avec votre permission, j'ai decide d'entrer au Carmel" ("with your permission, I have decided to enter the Carmelite Order"). Historically, the Carmelite order attracted women from the upper classes, eventually making it more susceptible to persecution during the Reign of Terror.
Scene 2: The parlor of the Carmelite convent.
Several weeks have passed, and Blanche is now in the convent. The Prioress, Mme. De Croissy, who is both old and infirm, sits before her. In a long and flowing arioso underpinned by the anxious rising minor 3rd that permeates the entire opera, the Prioress explains that the Carmelite Order is not a refuge. It is the nuns' duty to guard the Order, not the other way around. Although the rules of the Order are severe, it exists not for mortification of the flesh or the protection of virtue, but for prayer. God tests one's weakness, not one's strength. The music becomes more rapid and violent, suggesting that the encounter is more of an interrogation than a conversation. Suddenly, the music softens, moving from a brusque and accusatory outburst to lyrical and loving lines, when prayer is discussed. Blanche survives the ordeal, chooses the name Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ, and receives the Prioress' blessing.
Scene 3: Inside the convent in a lower room.
An austere plainsong ritornello leads to a surprising scherzo as Sister Constance enters. She is the complete opposite of Blanche—i.e. a fun-loving and chatty peasant girl who can talk about life and death with the same levity with which she discusses convent chores. She shocks Blanche by revealing her premonition that both of them will die young and on the same day.
Scene 4: The infirmary at the convent.
The clamor of bells introduces the Prioress's death scene, one of the most realistic in all opera. Over a steady ostinato (i.e. continuously repeated musical phrase or rhythm), the Prioress veers from visionary calm to delirium and agony-induced profanity. Before she dies, the Prioress blesses Blanche and commits her to the care of Mother Marie. She dies in great pain, shouting in her delirium that in spite of her long years of service to God, He has abandoned her in the end: "Who am I at this moment, wretched as I am, to concern myself with Him! Let Him first concern Himself with me." As Blanche and Mother Marie witness the death, both are visibly shaken. Blanche makes two appearances in this scene, once to receive the Prioress's blessing and again to witness her death.
An interesting aspect of this scene is the way in which Poulenc differentiated voices in an opera dominated by women. He based the tessituras (i.e. the area in a singer's range where the majority of the music lies) of his lead characters on grand operatic models. For example, Blanche's vocal line is based on the title role in Massenet's Thais. For the Old Prioress, Poulenc looked to Wagner's Kundry in Parsifal.
Scene 1: The nuns' chapel.
The jagged music of terror interrupts the simple and moving requiem for the dead Prioress. Sisters Blanche and Constance are completing their watch over the body. When the clock strikes, Constance leaves to fetch the next pair of sisters. Left alone, Blanche panics and runs away. Mother Marie both admonishes and comforts her. Constance now voices her thoughts, central to Bernanos's theology – i.e. perhaps we die not for ourselves but for others. Perhaps we even die each other's deaths, so the Prioress' passing might afford a poor sinner an easy passing. Constance says: "Perhaps the Lord God gave her the wrong death, as a cloakroom attendant might give you the wrong coat."
Interlude: Before the curtain.
Sisters Blanche and Constance bring flowers for the Mother Superior's grave. They discuss the ways of God, and Constance utters yet another strange and prophetic thought. She claims that the Mother Superior's death was too small for her. She predicts that someone else is likely to find an easier and more comfortable death. "People die for each other" or "in place of each other."
Scene 2: The chapter room.
In the opera's most extended arioso (i.e. vocal music that is more melodic than recitative, yet not quite an aria), the newly appointed Prioress Madame Lidoine warns the convent of the adversity ahead. Simple harmonies and rhythmic implacability emphasize her strength and humility. The scene ends with a moving "Ave Maria.".
A ring at the door startles everyone. Mother Marie announces the arrival of a stranger. Blanche's brother, the Chevalier, has come. The Mother Superior allows the interview to take place, provided that Mother Marie can listen while unobserved.
(Act II continued)
Scene 3: The parlor.
In an extended duet, the Chevalier begs Blanche to come home with him for her own safety. As both an aristocrat and a nun, Blanche is in great danger from anti-aristocrat and anti-clerical forces. The music underlines Blanche's state of mind. She's aloof, then agitated and affectionate. She reiterates her desire to stay and to die if needed. She is no longer the Chevalier's "little lamb", but a free and happy daughter of Carmel. Later Blanche tells Mother Marie that it is fear or the fear of fear itself that prevents her from leaving.
Scene 4: The sacristry, autumn 1792.
The end of Act II is Verdian in scope. It begins with the Chaplain (Father Confessor) leading the sisters in the opera's third prayer, an intense and sensual "Ave verum corpus."The Father bids the group farewell as he leaves to go into forced hiding. As a non-juror under the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, he's now forbidden to preach. The Prioress warns the sisters against easy pride and the temptation of martyrdom. God, not human beings, decides who will be martyred.
Just as the Prioress utters her words of caution, Commissars enter and read a decree of expulsion from the convent. Their cruelty is compounded when one of their members admits that although he is secretly sympathetic to the nuns, in these dangerous times, he's forced to "howl with the pack." In spite of his position, however, he offers to lead the crowd away to allow the nuns to make preparations. Amidst the chaos, Blanche is given a statue of the infant Jesus that was traditionally carried from cell to cell at Christmas time. Terrorized by a sudden and loud noise from the street, she drops it on the floor, where it breaks into pieces. She cries out: "Now all that remains is the Lamb of God." Outside, the crowd shouts the revolutionary "Ca'ira."
Scene 1: The chapel.
A stately sarabande (i.e. a slow stately Spanish dance in triple time), Mother Marie's motif, bears witness to the sisters' strength in adversity. The convent is devastated. In the absence of the new Prioress, who has been forcibly prevented from attending the meeting and has fled to Paris to seek guidance from her superiors, Mother Marie suggests that that the sisters take the vow of martyrdom, provided that all agree. The Chaplain returns, now disguised in street clothes. He takes the secret vote behind a screen. There is one dissenting vote, presumably that of Blanche. Expecting her friend to back down, Constance had sympathetically voted no. Realizing that Blanche supported the vow, Constance rushes forward to claim her position and announce her change of mind. The vow can now proceed. Lacking the courage to live or die, Blanche runs away, unobserved. The nuns are in numb disbelief as they hear their community declared illegal in any form. In a lyrical codetta (i.e. brief conclusion that may be repeated), the new Prioress, who is not present, agrees to endorse the vow made in her absence. It was made to God, not to her.
Interlude: Before the curtain.
The Carmelites are now dressed in ordinary clothes. They carry their gowns in small bundles. An officer commends them for their obedience to commands and warns them against resuming their occupation as nuns or gathering together again. When the officer leaves, Mother Marie agrees to abide by the Mother Superior's decision to warn the Chaplain not to say one last Mass; the danger is too great. Marie disagrees, believing that the decision is inconsistent with the vow of martyrdom that all have taken.
Scene 2: The library of the Marquis.
Now back in her family home, Blanche is terrorized and traumatized. Her father has been guillotined. The house has been ransacked, and she is now serving the very people who were previously her servants. Mother Marie, ever the steadfast rock, is now dressed in civilian clothes. She comes for Blanche and offers to take her to a safer place. Hoping that her present status in her brother's home will keep her under the radar, Blanche refuses to go; she must live up to her adopted name, Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ. Mother Marie gives up, giving Blanche an address where she can safely hide and telling her that she may have saved her life but not her soul. In a spoken interlude, Blanche hears that the Carmelites have been arrested.
Scene 3: A prison cell at the Conciergerie in Compiegne.
All the Carmelite nuns other than Blanche and Mother Marie are prisoners. The new Prioress tries to fill them with strength and courage. Someone asks about the missing Blanche, and Sister Constance explains that she dreamt that Blanche will join them. A jailer enters and interrupts the calm arioso. All are condemned to death for helping the enemies of the revolution. The Prioress concludes her interrupted aria with a loving maternal blessing.
Poulenc based the vocal line of the new Prioress on that of Desdemona in Verdi's Otello. The lyric soprano role requires a combination of tenderness with power of delivery. The new Prioress is far less dramatic than her predecessor. She is the steadfast leader to whom the group turns after they have been condemned to death. Here Poulenc's music follows the contour of the words, deepening their meaning and giving them human resonance. The approach is very much the tradition of French songwriting that began in the 19th century.
Interlude: In the street.
An interlude reveals an anguished Mother Marie, disappointed that she has been separated from her condemned sisters. The Chaplain calms her, claiming that God has chosen to spare her and that she cannot join the others in prison.
Scene 4: Place de la Revolution.
At the place of the execution, the crowd assembles to watch. The Chaplain, wearing a cap of liberty and secretly giving absolution, makes the sign of the cross as the nuns mount the scaffold one by one singing "Salve Regina" ("Hail Holy Queen"). The rising melody is sung in unison and is composed in the manner of Gregorian chant (sacred vocal music consisting of a single melodic line). To Constance's joy, Blanche appears at the last minute and joins the condemned community. Having seen the execution of all the others, Blanche mounts the scaffold and sings the final stanza of "Veni Creator Spiritus" ("Come Holy Spirit"), the Catholic hymn traditionally sung when taking vows in a religious community and offering one's life to God.
Highlights of the Opera
- Poulenc's interest in opera came late in his career. All three of his operas, Les mamelles de Tiresias (1947), Les Dialogues des Carmelites (1957) and La Voix humaine (1959), display a depth of feeling that Poulenc would probably have been unable to capture during his younger days.
- The story of the Compiegne Carmelites was first told by Mother Marie, a survivor of the French Revolution who lived until 1836 and included the story of the Carmelite nuns in her memoir. The publication of her Relation led to the beautification of the nuns in 1906. In 1931, a German novelist and Catholic convert named Gertrude von Le Fort turned the story into a novel called Die Letze am Schafott (The Last on the Scaffold), writing herself in as the fearful and struggling Blanche de la Force.
- There were numerous attempts to turn the novel into both a play and film. In 1947, the French Resistance fighter Father Bruckberger and cinematographer/screenwriter Philippe Agostini adapted the novel for the screen. They added a new character, Blanche's protective brother Chevalier de la Force. The two then engaged French novelist Georges Bernanos to write the dialogue. Bernanos added more characters and personal details. At the time he was suffering from cancer, and he set the age of the dying Prioress at 59, just like himself. The Prioress's crisis of faith as she lay dying was like his own. Although Bernanos's work never made it to the movies, it surfaced as a stage play after the novelist's death. Poulenc saw the play in the early 1950s and suggested to Casa Ricordi that he write an opera.
- Poulenc remained very true to the spirit and text of original source - unlike Debussy' with that composer's adaptation of the play Pelleas et Melisande. He made just a few cuts for length. In the inscription of the original score, Poulenc cites as sources of inspiration his mother, Claude Debussy, Claudio Monteverdi, Giuseppe Verdi, and Modest Moussorgsky. While Poulenc was composing the opera between 1953 and 1956, he suffered a nervous breakdown, presumably because he empathized so deeply with the nuns' plight. The death of Poulenc's partner Lucien Roubert in 1955 added to the composer's stress.
- After several years of legal and financial complications over the rights to the piece, Les Dialogues des Carmelites premiered at Teatro alla Scala (in Italian) in 1957. That same year, it was performed in Paris (in French), Cologne, and San Francisco (in English). The San Francisco performance was recorded and televised by NBC Opera Company. In 1957, the work won the opera award of the New York Music Critics' Circle. The opera was performed at Covent Garden in 1958. The first performance in the United States took place on March 3, 1966 at New York City Opera. The first production at the Metropolitan Opera, sung in English, took place in 1977. The 1980 Metropolitan Opera revision was sung in French. Met productions from then until 2013 were sung in English. Since 2013, Met productions have been sung in French. The 2023 Barrie Kosky production at the Glyndebourne Festival added yet another touch that was reminiscent of the Holocaust.
- The opera focuses on several themes: (1) inhibiting limitations of fear and the freedom achieved when overcoming it; (2) death; (3) personal terror vs. state terror; (4) restraint; (5) inner and outer turmoil; and (6) sacrifice.
- Poulenc uses three main musical forms in the opera: (1) choral and orchestral interlude; (2) recitative (words that are sung in a way that imitates speech); and (3) arioso (singing that is tied more to the rhythm of speech than an aria but that is more melodic than recitative). The many interludes bring the pieces together, creating a sense of continuity between disparate locations and time gaps.
- The musical technique combines both the influence of earlier composers such as Mussorgsky (Boris Godunov) Monteverdi (L'incoronazione di Poppea), Debussy (Pelleas et Melisande), and Verdi (Don Carlo) and Poulenc's unique way of blending these styles with his own. Even when Poulenc wrote for a large orchestra, he used full forces sparingly. He often scored for woodwinds, brass, or strings alone. Assisted by Bernac, he also demonstrated great skill in writing for the human voice, fitting the music to the tessitura (i.e. vocal range) of each character. By the time Poulenc wrote Les Dialogues des Carmelites, his last opera, he was comfortable giving the soprano stretches of music without any orchestral accompaniment at all.
- The compositional style of the opera is tonal and follows the rules set down by traditional Western music theory. Poulenc's music follows the melodic path that the ear expects. At the time of the opera's premiere in 1957, other contemporary composers such as Samuel Barber (Vanessa), Bohuslav Martinu (The Greek Passion), and Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story) were writing in the same lyrical, melodic way.
- The challenge for Poulenc was in dealing with a thin story line. Although the ending is melodramatic, there is no conventional love interest. As the title suggests, there is a great deal of dialogue of a religious nature. Although there are no set arias, the dialogue and its emotional overtones are heightened by the musical setting of the prose speech. The few set concert numbers, primarily Latin prayers, stand out as realistic and dramatic. One example is the "Ave Maria" in Act II, when the new Mother Superior finishes her first awkward yet moving address to the nuns. Another example comes at the end of the last act when the nuns mount the scaffold singing "Salve Regina." Their music weakens as the sound of the guillotine is heard off stage.
- Musically, there is a sharing of material throughout the opera. To Jeremy Sams, this approach is a musical analogue for Bernanos' s view of martyrdom: the transference of grace, the universality of suffering.
About this Website
The website contains links to the music we will hear and other background information.
Questions and Additional Information
Please reach out to Instructor Margie Satinsky with questions and requests for additional information. Contact information is: (919) 383-5998 (home/work), or (919) 812-2235 (cell/text), or firstname.lastname@example.org.