Dialogues of the Carmelites
|Operas by Francis Poulenc|
Dialogues des carmélites (Dialogues of the Carmelites) is a 1956 French-language opera in twelve scenes and several orchestral interludes, grouped into three acts, by Francis Poulenc. It is the composer's second opera; he wrote the libretto himself after a scheme by Georges Bernanos. Its première took place (in an Italian translation) in January 1957 at Teatro alla Scala in Milan; French and American premières followed the same year.
It tells a somewhat fictionalised version of the story of the Martyrs of Compiègne, Carmelite nuns who were guillotined during the French Revolution after refusing to renounce their vocation.
The genesis of the opera began in 1953 when M. Valcarenghi approached Poulenc to commission a ballet for La Scala in Milan. When Poulenc found the proposed subject uninspiring, Valcarenghi suggested instead a screenplay by Bernanos based on the novella Die Letzte am Schafott (The Last on the Scaffold or, in one translation, Song at the Scaffold) by Gertrud von Le Fort. The novella derives from historical events at the monastery of Carmelite nuns in Compiègne, northern France, in the wake of the French Revolution, specifically in 1794 at the time of state seizure of the monastery's assets; it traces a fictional path from 1789 up to these events, when nuns of the Carmelite Order were guillotined.
Bernanos had been hired in 1947 to write dialogue for a movie version of the Le Fort work. When it was judged unsatisfactory for a film he turned it into a play which was produced in Paris in 1949. Poulenc saw the play, but it was on suggestion of his publishing firm Ricordi to turn the subject into an opera. The opera was composed between 1953 and 1956. The idea for the opera came at at time when Poulenc had recommitted himself to spirituality and (though openly gay) Roman Catholicism. Some, such as opera critic Alan Rich, also see Poulenc's concerns for the travails of post-World War II France as a subtext within the opera.
Some sources credit Emmet Lavery as librettist or co-librettist, but others only say, "With the permission of Emmet Lavery." The libretto is unusually deep in its psychological study of the contrasting characters of Mother Marie de l'Incarnation and Blanche de la Force.
Dialogues contributes to Poulenc's reputation as a composer especially of fine vocal music. The dialogues are largely set in recitative, with a melodic line that closely follows the text. The harmonies are lush, with the occasional wrenching twists that are characteristic of Poulenc's style. Poulenc's deep religious feelings are particularly evident in the gorgeous a cappella setting of Ave Maria in Act II, Scene II, and the Ave verum corpus in Act II, Scene IV. During the final tableau of the opera, which takes place in the Place de la Nation, the distinct sound of the guillotine's descending blade is heard repeatedly over the orchestra and the singing of the nuns, who are depleted one by one, until only Sister Constance remains.
Poulenc acknowledged his debt to Mussorgsky, Monteverdi, Verdi, and Debussy in the dedication of this opera but still felt apologetic about the opera's conservative harmonic language saying "You must forgive my Carmelites. It seems they can only sing tonal music." Opera historians, such as Anthony Tommasini, feel there is nothing to be ashamed of, saying the "subtle and intricate tonal language is by turns hymnal and haunting. Though scored for a large orchestra, the instruments are often used in smaller groups selected for particular effects and colorings. The most distinctive element of the score, though, is its wonderfuly natural vocal writing, which capture the rhythms and lyrical flow of the libertto in eloquent music that hardly calls attention to itself yet lingers with you."
The opera has been widely praised, and opera historian Charles Osborne reflected on it saying "The inexorable dramatic movement of the work is impressive and, in the final scene in which the nuns walk in procession to the guillotine chanting the Salve regina, extremely moving. Poulenc also found an easy and effective style to which to carry forward without monotony the scenes of convent life."
The opera was first performed in an Italian translation at La Scala on 26 January 1957 with Virginia Zeani in the role of Blanche. The original French version premiered on 21 June that year by the Paris Théâtre National de l'Opéra (the current Opéra National de Paris); the Paris cast had been chosen by Poulenc and included Denise Duval (Blanche de la Force), Régine Crespin (Madam Lidoine), Rita Gorr (Mother Marie), and Liliane Berton (Sister Constance). The United States premiere took place three months later, on 20 September, in English, at San Francisco Opera; this featured the opera stage debut of Leontyne Price (as Madame Lidoine). The opera was not presented in New York until 3 March 1966, in a staging by New York City Opera.
|Role||Voice type||Version in Italian
January 26, 1957 (Milan)
(conductor: Nino Sanzogno)
|Original French version
June 21, 1957 (Paris)
(conductor: Pierre Dervaux)
|Marquis de la Force||baritone||Scipio Colombo||Xavier Depraz|
|Chevalier de la Force, his son||tenor||Nicola Filacuridi||Jean Giraudeau|
|Blanche de la Force/Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ, his daughter||soprano||Virginia Zeani||Denise Duval|
|Thierry, a footman||baritone||Armando Manelli||Forel|
|Madame de Croissy, the prioress of the monastery||contralto||Gianna Pederzini||Denise Scharley|
|Sister Constance of St. Denis, a young novice||soprano||Eugenia Ratti||Liliane Berton|
|Mother Marie of the Incarnation, sub-prioress||mezzo-soprano||Gigliola Frazzoni||Rita Gorr|
|M. Javelinot, a doctor||baritone||Carlo Gasperini||Max Conti|
|Madame Lidoine/Mother Marie of St. Augustine, the new prioress||soprano||Leyla Gencer||Régine Crespin|
|Mother Jeanne of the Holy Child Jesus, the oldest nun||contralto||Vittoria Palombini||Fourrier|
|Sister Mathilde||mezzo-soprano||Fiorenza Cossotto||Desmoutiers|
|Chaplain of the monastery||tenor||Alvino Manelli||Forel|
|First commissioner||tenor||Antonio Pirino||Romagnoni|
|Carmelites, officers, prisoners, townspeople|
The pathologically timid Blanche de la Force decides to retreat from the world and enter a Carmelite monastery. The Mother Superior informs her that the Carmelite Order is not a refuge; it is the duty of the nuns to guard the Order, not the other way around. In the convent, the jolly Sister Constance tells Blanche (to her consternation) that she has had a dream that the two of them will die young together. The prioress, who is dying, commits Blanche to the care of Mother Marie. The Mother Superior passes away in great agony, shouting in her delirium that despite her long years of service to God, He has abandoned her. Blanche and Mother Marie, who witness her death, are shaken.
Sister Constance remarks to Blanche that the prioress' death seemed unworthy of her, and speculates that she had been given the wrong death, as one might be given the wrong coat in a cloakroom. Perhaps someone else will find death surprisingly easy. Perhaps we die not for ourselves alone, but for each other.
Blanche's brother, the Chevalier de la Force, arrives to announce that their father thinks Blanche should withdraw from the monastery, since she is not safe there (being both an aristocrat and the member of a religious community). Blanche refuses, saying that she has found happiness in the Carmelite Order, but later admits to Mother Marie that it is fear (or the fear of fear itself, as the Chevalier expresses it) that keeps her from leaving.
The chaplain announces that he has been forbidden to preach (presumably for being a non-juror under the Civil Constitution of the Clergy). The nuns remark on how fear now rules the country, and no one has the courage to stand up for the priests. Sister Constance asks, "Are there no men left to come to the aid of the country?" "When priests are lacking, martyrs are superabundant," replies the new Mother Superior. Mother Marie says that the Carmelites can save France by giving their lives, but the Mother Superior corrects her: it is not permitted to become a martyr voluntarily, martyrdom is a gift from God.
A police officer arrives and announces to the community that the Legislative Assembly has nationalized the monastery and its property, and the nuns must give up their religious habits. When Mother Marie acquiesces, the officer taunts her for being eager to dress like everyone else. She replies that the nuns will continue to serve, no matter how they are dressed. "The people has no need of servants," proclaims the officer haughtily. "No, but it has a great need for martyrs," responds Mother Marie. "In times like these, death is nothing," he says. "Life is nothing," she answers, "when it is so debased."
In the absence of a new prioress, Mother Marie proposes that the nuns take a vow of martyrdom. However, all must agree, or Mother Marie will not insist. A secret vote is held; there is one dissenting voice. Sister Constance declares that she was the dissenter, and that she has changed her mind, so the vow can proceed. Blanche runs away from the monastery, and Mother Marie goes to look for her, finding her in her father's library. Her father has been guillotined, and Blanche has been forced to serve her former servants.
The nuns are all arrested and condemned to death, but Mother Marie is away (with Blanche, presumably) at the time. The chaplain tells Mother Marie that since God has chosen to spare her, she cannot now voluntarily become a martyr by joining the others in prison. The nuns (one by one) slowly mount the scaffold, singing the Salve Regina ("Hail, Holy Queen"). At the last minute, Blanche appears, to Constance's joy, and joins the condemned community. Having seen all the other nuns executed, as she mounts the scaffold, Blanche sings the final stanza of the Veni Creator Spiritus, Deo Patri sit gloria..., the hymn traditionally used when offering one's life to God.
At least fourteen (14) complete recordings exist. Of these, studio audio recordings were made in 1958 (conducted by Dervaux; released on the HMV label), 1992 (Nagano; Virgin), and 2005 (Daniel; Chandos). Less formally, live audio recordings exist from Milan in 1957 (Sanzogno; Legendary), from London in 1958 (Kubelík; Opera Addiction), from Vienna in 1961 (Klobucar; Ponto), and from Paris in 1980 (Marty; INA). At least seven video recordings have been made: in 1981 (filmed in Strasbourg; conducted by Périsson; released on Lyric Distribution), 1984 (Sydney; Bonynge; Kultur), 1986 (Toronto; Fournet; Lyric Distribution), 1987 (New York; Rosenthal; Met label), 1998 (Strasbourg; Latham-König; Arthaus), 2004 (Milan, with Anja Silja as Madame de Croissy; Muti; TDK), 2010 ( 2008 live performance from Hamburg, conducted by Simone Young with Alexia Voulgaridou as Blanche de la Force) and 2010 (Munich; Nagano; Bel Air).
- Charles Osborne (2004). The Opera Lover's Companion. Yale University Press.
- "New York Magazine" 10 (8). Feb 21, 1977.
- According to Benjamin Ivry ("Cries from the Scaffold", Commonweal, 6 April 2001), Lavery owned the theatrical rights to the story, and following a legal judgement over the copyright, his name must be given in connection with all staged performances.
- Anthony Tommasini (2004). The New York Times Essential Library: Opera: A Critic's Guide to the 100 Most Important Works and the Best Recordings. Times Books.
- "San Francisco Opera Archive". Retrieved 17 December 2011.
- Schonberg, Harold C. (4 March 1966). "Music: 'Dialogues of the Carmelites'; Poulenc Work Is Given at Last by City Opera". The New York Times.
- Hell, Henri, Les Dialogues des Carmélites, liner notes to the recording on EMI compact disc no. 7493312.
- Poulenc, Francis, The Dialogues of the Carmelites - Libretto, original text and English Translation. Ricordi and Belwin Mills Publishing Corp., Melville, NY. 1957, 1959.