Powerful Opera

November 16 and 18, 2014

Francis Poulenc
Dialogues of the Carmelites

Francis Poulenc was born in Paris on January 7, 1899 and died there on January 30, 1963. His earlier works, many of which were of a lighter or satirical character, led audiences and critics to dismiss Poulenc as a serious composer despite having composed some sacred works. Poulenc’s attitude, and that of his critics, began to change after the Second World War, as witnessed by his opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites (Dialogues des Carmélites). Here we find music serving a drama dealing with profound moral and theological issues. This, Poulenc’s third of four operas, was composed between the years 1953 and 1956 and received its first performance (in Italian) at Milan’s La Scala on January 26, 1957. It’s French premiere took place at the Paris Opéra on June 21 of that year. Winston-Salem audiences will be interested in knowing that the role of Blanche was first created by Virginia Zeani (pictured with the composer), one of the primary teachers of University of North Carolina School of the Arts’ voice professor, Marilyn Taylor.

Poulenc’s most important opera has become a standard work in the repertory of major opera houses throughout the world. This concert performance by the Winston-Salem Symphony, which marks the first time the orchestra has presented the work, will be sung in English.

The Winston-Salem Symphony’s program notes are also available in larger print for you to print at home and bring with you to the concert!

Click here.

Francis Poulenc with soprano Virginia Zeani as Blanche
Francis Poulenc with Virginia Zeani as Blanche

How can an individual keep faith in the face of a society that has lost its moral compass? This question lies at the very heart of Poulenc’s opera. Paul Hindemith’s opera, Mathis der Mahler (1935, first performed in Zürich in 1938) addressed a similar question, using an actual historical figure, the painter of the Isenheim Alterpiece, Matthias Grünewald, as the protagonist who probes his role as an artist in the historical context of the Peasant’s War of Germany (1524-5). Hindemith’s opera is rarely performed and is best known from the symphony of the same name that the composer created. Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, on the other hand, has gained a regular foothold on opera stages (and concert halls) throughout the world.

The setting of the Dialogues of the Carmelites in the France of the Reign of Terror (1794) also uses a true historical event—the martyrdom of the nuns of Compiègne who refused to renounce their faith. Poulenc derived his opera from several sources, most notably the work of the French novelist Georges Bernanos (1888-1948). Bernanos was asked to adapt the 1931 novella, The Last on the Scaffold or Song at the Scaffold, written by Gertrud von Le Fort (1876-1971). Instead of creating a screenplay, as originally planned, Bernanos wrote a play which was published in 1949 and staged in Paris in 1952. This play was adapted by Bernanos as the libretto for Poulenc’s opera, although Emmett Lavery also may have contributed to it. The libretto is a marvel in that through its episodic series of dialogues, it explores deeply the psychological forces that drive its principal characters—Madame de Croissy (the Prioress of the monastery), Mother Marie de l’Incarnation (sub-prioress), Sister Constance of St. Denis (a young novice), and above all the central character, Blanche de la Force/Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ. The character Blanche is the only one that did not exist in real history.

Carmelite nuns are associated with the Order of the Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, founded on Mt. Carmel dating back to the twelfth century. From its beginnings, the primary focus of the order has been contemplation, prayer, community, and service. Its patrons are considered by the Catholic Church to be the prophet Elijah and the Virgin Mary. By the end of the thirteenth century, the order had begun to establish itself in England, Germany, Italy, and France. Having reached the zenith of its influence in the seventeenth century, events such as the French Revolution proved to be difficult for the Carmelite order, as a wave of secularism had reduced the influence of the church in general. It is in this context that the martyrdom of the sisters of Compiègne took place in 1794, during the waning days of the Reign of Terror.

In the wake of the horrors of World War II, it is not difficult to see how Poulenc may have become attracted to the subject of this story as the basis for his opera. The persecution wrought by the Nazis, not only upon Jews and other communities of faith, but of other minorities, including homosexuals (of which Poulenc was one), surely struck a sympathetic chord. The musical language that the composer found to carry forth the many conversations that are the ongoing episodes of Dialogues of the Carmelites is a kind of parlando or arioso style that lies somewhere between melody and recitative. Using a fairly conservative tonal framework and sensitive and powerful orchestration, Poulenc turns a prose libretto into musical poetry that captures the piety of the Latin prayers as well as the deeply-felt fear that consumes Blanche and the despair of the Prioress. In the end, Poulenc has given us a theatrical parable that deals with timeless issues of conscience and faith that transcend its Catholic trappings.


It is against this backdrop that the fictional character, Blanche, seeks to create her identity as a novice in the Carmelite order.

Act I

Sc. 1: Blanche, frightened by the mobs in the streets, confesses her fear and announces to her father, the Marquis de la Force and her brother, the Chevalier, her intentions to become a nun.

Sc. 2: The Prioress of the Carmelite convent interviews Blanche, warning her that her decision will not protect her from the outside world. Told that she must devote herself exclusively to prayer, she chooses the name Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ.

Sc. 3: The Prioress is now dying. Inside the convent, Sister Blanche converses with fellow novice, Sister Constance of Saint-Denis, who recalls her happy youth in Bretagne. Blanche rebukes her in light of the impending death of the Prioress, and suggests that they pray and offer their lives in exchange for their leader. Constance prophesizes that she was destined to die young, and upon meeting Blanche, has a premonition that they will die together on the same day.

Sc. 4: Mother Marie stands by the deathbed of the Prioress. Blanche enters the infirmary to take her leave of the dying woman, who in turn turns bids Mother Marie to take Blanche under her special care. Facing death, the Prioress in her delirium cries out that God has forsaken her and foresees the desecration of the convent’s chapel.

Act II

Sc. 1: Blanche and Constance are keeping vigil over the body of the Prioress. As Constance leaves to find their replacements, Blanche is overcome with fear and tries to leave, only to be intercepted by Mother Marie. In the ensuing Interlude, the two novices are making a cross of flowers to adorn the Prioress’s grave. Constance philosophizes that the difficult death of the Prioress may ease the way for an easier one for someone else, saying “We die not for ourselves alone, but we die for each other, or probably even instead of each other. Who knows?”

Sc. 2: Mme Lidoine/Mother Marie of St. Augustine, the new Prioress warns the Carmelites of difficult days ahead, urging them to choose prayer over martyrdom. She leads the nuns in the Ave Maria. Another Interlude ensues. The ringing of the doorbell announces the arrival of the Chevalier de la Force, who has decided to leave France in the face of the tumult of the Revolution, wishes an audience with Blanche. The Prioress agrees to this with the stipulation that the Mother Marie be present.

Sc. 3: The Chevalier informs Blanche that their father wishes her to leave the convent as her former status as an aristocrat and her present one as a nun place her in especial danger from the mob. Rejecting the idea that it is fear that is keeping Blanche there, she declares her trust in God’s will. But as he leaves, Blanche is overcome with fear as Mother Marie counsels her to have courage.

Sc. 4: The Father Confessor bids farewell to the nuns, telling them that he must go into hiding. Mother Marie opines that for the church’s sake, the nuns may have to offer their lives, but the Prioress replies that it is not for the Carmelites to decide whether or not to become martyrs. As the Father attempts to flee, the mob forces him back into the convent. Commissioners enter the sacristy to tell the nuns that they are to be expelled. The Prioress departs for Paris. Mother Jeanne of the Child Jesus offers Blanche, who is terrified, a small statue of the infant Savior to comfort her, but the cries of the mob cause her to drop it and it breaks.


Sc. 1: The chapel has been desecrated, as the dead Prioress had foretold. Mother Marie, in the absence of the new Prioress, proposes that the Carmelites take a vow of martyrdom. They take a secret vote, and one of them dissents. They believe that it is Blanche, but Sister Constance claims responsibility, but now wishes to change her mind. As the sisters take the vow, Blanche flees. During the Interlude, the Prioress returns as the Carmelites are informed by an Officer that their community has been made outlaw and they are invited to be new citizens of the Republic. The Prioress feels it is too dangerous to celebrate Mass, but Mother Marie feels that this caution is inconsistent with their vow of martyrdom.

Sc. 2: Blanche’s father, the Marquis, has been guillotined and she has returned to her home as a servant. Mother Marie fetches her to return to the convent, but Blanche’s fear prevents her from doing so. The Mother gives her an address where Blanche will be safe.

Sc. 3: The nuns have been arrested and imprisoned in the Conciergerie. The Prioress joins their vow of martyrdom. Constance dreams that Blanche will return to join them as the jailer announces that the Revolutionary Tribunal has condemned the Carmelites to death. During the Interlude, Mother Marie has learned from the Father Confessor that the sisters have been sentenced to die. She resolves to join them, but the priest says that God may have another destiny in mind for her.

Sc. 4: A large crowd has gathered on July 17, 1794 in the Place de la Révolution to witness the execution of the Carmelites. As they sing the Salve Regina, one by one, led by the Prioress, they ascend the scaffold to be beheaded. As Constance is the final one to arrive at the guillotine, Blanche steps forward to take her place with her fellow Carmelites, much to the ecstasy of Constance. As she begins the concluding part of the Salve Regina, the final blade falls, cutting short both the hymn and her life. Blanche has conquered her fear.

Program Note by David B. Levy, © 2014

Posted in Program Notes
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