Great moments in opera: Dialogues des Carmélites

November 13, 2009

Francis Poulenc is not the first composer most people think of when they think of opera, but he did write a few, including one, Dialogues des Carmélites, that is a great personal favourite.  Set during the French Revolution, it follows a group of Carmelite nuns as their cloistered lives of prayer and contemplation are overturned by the frenzied violence of those times.  It is a great opera for those who hate the French Revolution, and it has terrific music too.  Poulenc, who as a young man had a reputation for insouciant humour and elegant buffoonery, outdid himself in this magnificent achievement.  He aimed high, and produced an opera of moral seriousness, psychological complexity, and spiritual grandeur.  It is a French opera, influenced by Debussy, and is largely devoid of “big numbers”, using instead a style of singing that is supple, quiet (for opera), and conversational.

I consider the last scene of Dialogues to be one of the great scenes in all of opera.  The sisters are brought to the guillotine.  As the first of them goes forward to meet the blade, they break into song, singing Poulenc’s own beautiful setting of Salve regina.  As the guillotine slices down through the music, the voices drop out, one by one, until all are gone.  It’s a devastating conclusion, which Poulenc’s music infuses with a transcendent beauty.

Here is that last scene.  I had always imagined the sisters going off-stage to meet the guillotine, but this production takes a more abstract approach that nonetheless works pretty well.   The woman who joins them at the very end is Blanche, a sister who had fled when she realized that she faced martyrdom.  Standing alone, she sings the final stanza of Veni Creator spiritus before the blade silences her.

Here are the texts with translations: Salve regina and Veni Creator spiritus.

Poulenc’s libretto was based on a screenplay by Georges Bernanos, and the screenplay was, not incidentally, based on real events.  The sisters, from Compiègne convent, were beatified by Pope Pius X in 1906.  Their feast day is July 17.

One Response to “Great moments in opera: Dialogues des Carmélites

  1. […] community of nuns.  There is also Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, about which I wrote a few months ago.  And we must not forget — and, really, how could we? — Messiaen’s monumental […]

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