Title

Facing the Guillotine, Poulenc’s Nuns Explore the Nature of Faith

Author

Francis Poulenc’s masterpiece Dialogues des Carmélites, which received its premiere in 1957 at La Scala, in Milan, maintains a unique place in the operatic canon, mainly for what it is not: there are no scintillating love stories, no tales of ignominious family feuds or unlikely instances of mistaken identity, no high-flying arias, no need for any extravagant special effects or show-stopping set pieces. Save for one harrowing death by natural causes (that of the character of the Prioress), there’s not even a single tubercular or consumptive character in sight. In short, the typical fodder that makes opera, well, operatic is conspicuously absent from Carmélites. Yet the story, which centers on the faith and ultimate martyrdom of a group of Carmelite nuns during the Reign of Terror—a period of violence during the French Revolution when thousands were executed—is unrelentingly dramatic, and not only because of its famous final scene in which the title characters march toward the scaffold while intoning the “Salve Regina” above the bloodcurdling sound of the falling guillotine.

Anne Manson will conduct a new production of Dialogues des Carmélites, to be performed by Juilliard Opera in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater this month.

(Photo by Photo by Peter Schaaf)

Juilliard Opera performed Dialogues des Carmélites in 2001. The School will stage another production of Poulenc’s best-known work, directed by Fabrizio Melano and conducted by Anne Manson, later this month.

(Photo by Nan Melville)

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Francis Poulenc’s masterpiece Dialogues des Carmélites, which received its premiere in 1957 at La Scala, in Milan, maintains a unique place in the operatic canon, mainly for what it is not: there are no scintillating love stories, no tales of ignominious family feuds or unlikely instances of mistaken identity, no high-flying arias, no need for any extravagant special effects or show-stopping set pieces. Save for one harrowing death by natural causes (that of the character of the Prioress), there’s not even a single tubercular or consumptive character in sight. In short, the typical fodder that makes opera, well, operatic is conspicuously absent from Carmélites. Yet the story, which centers on the faith and ultimate martyrdom of a group of Carmelite nuns during the Reign of Terror—a period of violence during the French Revolution when thousands were executed—is unrelentingly dramatic, and not only because of its famous final scene in which the title characters march toward the scaffold while intoning the “Salve Regina” above the bloodcurdling sound of the falling guillotine.

The true story of 16 nuns from the Carmel of Compiègne who were sent to their deaths in Paris on July 17, 1794, was the basis for Gertrud von le Fort’s 1931 novella Die Letzte am Schafott (The Last at the Scaffold), later adapted as a screenplay by the French writer Georges Bernanos, which was then used as the basis for a play, Song at the Scaffold (1949), by the Irish-American playwright Emmet Lavery. It was Bernanos’s screenplay that would serve as the basis for Poulenc’s libretto. The opera, which will be performed at Juilliard this month in a production directed by Fabrizio Melano and conducted by Anne Manson, was an immediate success, and stagings were mounted around the world. Two made-for-television productions are still available on DVD and the opera has become a standard work around the world. Juilliard last performed Carmélites in 2001; the production was directed by Frank Corsaro and conducted by Julius Rudel.

The plot centers around Blanche de la Force, a young woman who, in spite of her name (Blanche of the Strength), lives in a state of insurmountable fear and seeks refuge from the world and comfort in religion by sequestering herself in a convent. But she finds neither. Her fear scarcely abates as she witnesses the harrowing death of the Prioress and is visited by her brother, who urges her to find safety outside the convent as the Reign of Terror continues to tighten its grip. When their demise becomes clear, the Carmelites enter a pact of martyrdom, but Blanche abandons them. It is only when she suddenly reappears to join her sisters in their solemn procession to the guillotine that she seems finally to have come to terms with her fear.

Carmélites seized Poulenc, a devout Catholic, with unrelenting fervor. “I am working like a madman,” he wrote in a 1953 letter to his friend Stephane Audel. “I do not go out, do not see anyone … I am completing one scene a week. I hardly recognize myself. I am crazy about my subject, to the point of believing that I have actually known these women,” referring of course to the nuns who inspired him to write some of the most wrenching, probing music of his entire compositional career.

Poulenc’s letters from the time reveal a man who was alternately the model of confidence (“It just flows and flows, and it is like nobody but myself,” he wrote of the opera to the baritone Pierre Bernac in 1953) and completely unsure of himself (“After copying out the first two scenes of the Carmélites panic seized me. What if I had made a mistake about the style, the tone, etc.,” he confided a month later in a letter to the composer Georges Auric). Compounding Poulenc’s creative problems were growing complaints about poor health—perhaps real, perhaps imagined, as he was prone to bouts of crippling hypochondria. But it was the final break of his fitful six-year relationship with a travelling salesman named Lucien Roubert that appears to have caused Poulenc to suffer a complete nervous breakdown in April of 1954. He was forced to seek extensive periods of treatment and to abandon composition for many months. Adding to his woes was the realization that the rights to Gertrud von le Fort’s original story were caught up in a bitter legal dispute between the heirs of Bernanos and the playwright Emmet Lavery. “God alone will decide if I am to finish this work,” Poulenc wrote of Carmélites.  

In a recent interview, Melano said that Dialogues des Carmélites “is an opera not only about emotions, but about ideas. Faith, redemption, war, fear, death—all of those things. It is also about Blanche. It’s about her existential terror. It is her journey. She is able to surmount her fear, her terror, because she goes to the very depth of her fear. She spends most of the opera either hiding from it or fighting it, or denying it. But in the big scene with Mother Marie [Act 3, Scene 2], she finally admits it: ‘I was born in fear. I have lived in fear. And I’m still living in fear.’ She finally acknowledges it.”

There was no question for Melano about the setting of the opera. “It’s very specifically the whole length of the French Revolution,” he said. “It starts three months before the storming of the Bastille, and it ends 10 days before the end of the Terror. But it isn’t such a bleak show. Yes, they are all killed at the end, but that was what the Carmelites believed was their mission in life. They believed that they were the lightening rods, that they would attract to themselves all the problems of humanity, either through prayer or through suffering. And in fact, it worked, because 10 days later, the Terror was over. People who were in Paris at the time said that seeing 16 innocent women going up to the scaffold singing the ‘Salve Regina,’ even for a bloodthirsty mob of revolutionaries … apparently the crowds all fell silent.”

Poulenc completed the opera in August of 1955 at the same time that Lucien Roubert, the composer’s former companion, became seriously ill with cancer—he succumbed to the disease at the age of 47, in two months time. (The issue of rights dragged on for a while, but eventually Poulenc, who had befriended Lavery, was granted permission to use the story.) During Roubert’s final decline, Poulenc looked after him. The line separating opera and real life seems to have been mutable: in September of 1955, Poulenc wrote to the Carmel of Compiègne asking for prayers for his dying friend. As Pierre Bernac would later recount, “Those ladies of Compiègne were no strangers to [Poulenc’s] great crisis. If Blanche de la Force … transmitted to him [the] fear of death, one can at least explain it in part by the intensity with which he succeeded in bringing [her] to life. On certain evenings when he played his opera for friends, he would almost be in a state of trance.” 

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