Dialogues des Carmelites is the fictionalized version of the story of the Martyrs of Compiègne, 16 Carmelites nuns who were guillotined in 1794, during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution. Poulenc wrote music and libretto of this opera (which premiered in 1957) based on a screenplay written by Georges Bernanos, for a movie that was never produced.
The fictional character of Blanche de la Force, a young aristocrat who enters the convent right before the Revolution, is the focus of the narrative: her psychology is dissected, as well as her relationship with her family (briefly) and with the other nuns (extensively).
The main themes are fear, fear of death in particular, and its relationship with faith and martyrdom. Poulenc was a devout Catholic living his life as an openly gay man in the 50s, so he had his share of psychological problems with fear and faith, I suppose. These themes, as my readers know, are not particularly close to my heart or brain, and I have struggled quite a bit with this opera. I studied the classic EMI recording with Régine Crespin, I watched the video of the very production I was going to see, in its Le Monnaie incarnation, and slowly I got into the mood. I still do not understand Blanche, she is still a mystery to me, her relationship with her brother in particular. She is paralyzed by fear, and this is a source of shame for her. She enters the convent for 2 main reasons: the world is impossible to deal with, for her, and she wants a chance to do something heroic with her life. She sees the Rule of the Carmelites as both a refuge and a chance to show what she’s made of. Or this is what I gathered. I did eventually manage to get into a place where the music made sense to me, as well as most of the characters’ motivations.
Poulenc makes a use of the text that owes a lot to Monteverdi: almost the whole opera is a dramatic “recitar cantando”, where the characters interact (the dialogues, indeed) with a sort of continuous recitativo. The words are really just as important as the music: the large orchestra is often employed only a small group of instruments at a time, to support the singers, and only in the many Interludes Poulenc uses the full force of the orchestra and gives way to more symphonic writing (and in the finale, of course). The cast I was lucky enough to watch was entirely composed of French native speakers, with one amazing exception: Anne Sofie von Otter, whose French (according to my tweep @SP_Morgan) is superb. This really helped the flow and the enjoyment.
The show was magnificent. The production by Olivier Py was minimalist, VERY minimalist, but I didn’t mind. The story is intimate and personal, and doesn’t require very much on stage. I enjoyed the re-enactment, by the nuns, of some famous religious paintings during the Interludes, it was a simple, effective idea.
One of the main ideas of the opera, as far as I understood, is that Blanche lives in fear of death her whole life, but she ends up dying with serenity and calm, choosing to join her sisters in martyrdom even if she had already found a way to escape. And this serene death, for some mystical unfathomable reason, is due to the fact that the death that was supposed to be hers, was taken unto herself by the old Prioress, who, after an ascetic, detached, mystical life, ended up dying in terror, rage, and spite, cursing God and all the Saints. Blanche was spared this extremely difficult passage, and died the death of the Prioress, walking up the scaffold in saintly tranquility. This is of course a crazy mystical idea, but it has a lot of dramatic potential, and makes for quite a strong statement, in an opera.
The old Prioress was Anne-Sophie von Otter, who was absolutely magnificent and enthralling in her death scene. A Queen. Her voice is still powerful and strong, at 60+ years old, and her charisma is palpable.
Blanche was Patricia Petibon, who has a bright, strong soprano, and is a very good actress. She gave life to Blanche in such a convincing way that I have a hard time imagining another singer doing better. She was amazing.
Sabine Devieilhe was Sister Constance of Saint Denis, and before the show it was announced that she was sick, but would sing anyway. Her delivery was correct but a bit weak, she was probably restraining herself. Sister Constance is a very young novice, a bit silly, showing an instinctive, prophetic mysticism. The very high tessitura and shining high notes help to convey this sense of childish enthusiasm.
Sophie Koch was Sister Marie of the Incarnation, the Taliban of the situation. Her faith is exalted and becomes fanaticism: taking advantage of the absence of the new Prioress, she bullies the nuns into taking a vow of martyrdom. Here something very strange happens, where one of the nuns refuses to take the vow (they kind of vote in secret) and it looks like it was Blanche who said no, but then Constance says it was her who said no, they vote again and everybody says yes. I didn’t get it. Anyway, Sister Marie gets her vow from the whole community, and when the new Prioress comes back she is NOT impressed. Sister Marie ends up being the only nun to survive, ironically enough. Koch has a strong mezzo, with powerful high notes, and her interpretation of the stern, harsh, obsessed fanatic was spot-on.
Blanche’s brother is not dignified with a name, he is Le Chevalier, and, as I was saying, their relationship remains kind of mysterious to me. They are obviously very close (maybe too close? This production seemed to hint at improper feelings between them), but they don’t seem to understand each other very much. He was Stanislas de Barbeyrac, and extremely good tenor, his voice high and bright, able to express strength as well as tenderness. Beautiful smooth filati, and great stage presence.
The new prioress, Madame Lidoine, was Véronique Gens, a very strong soprano, her high notes occasionally a bit harsh, but even that was in character. Her maternal attitude towards the nuns was extremely moving, and evident in her vocal delivery.
Everybody else, and I mean EVERYBODY, even the small roles were absolutely great and on the spot, I want to mention them all.
- Nicolas Cavallier: Le Marquis de la Force
- Sarah Jouffroy: Mère Jeanne de l’Enfant Jésus
- Lucie Roche: Sœur Mathilde
- François Piolino: The priest
- Enguerrand de Hys: First commissioner
- Arnaud Richard: Second commissioner, an officer
- Matthieu Lécroart: Thierry, the doctor, the jailer
This review is already longer than usual but I just cannot avoid saying something about the finale. The opera ends with the nuns singing the Salve Regina, while one by one are executed on the guillotine. It is one of the most famous things ever written in opera, but if you have never heard it, you MUST. Look for it on youtube.
The ostinato of the strings is itself a funeral march; the brass enter like the trumpets from heaven, and the “SWISSSH” of the guillotine, out of tempo with everything, which stops the nuns one by one, mid-sentence, mid-word, until only Constance remains, and then Blanche takes her place… It’s genius. Just genius.
Yes, in this production the director, who of course is a genius bigger than Poulenc, removed the swish of the guillotine, but it was impressive anyway.
(I stand corrected. The guillotine was indeed there. My bad.)