Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Dialogues des Carmélites: Poulenc’s Magnum Opus

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In May 11, 2019, the Met “Live in HD” will present this season’s revival of the company’s long-lived and beloved production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. The design and direction were new in 1977 when the Met introduced Poulenc’s work into its repertoire. Forty-two years and eight revivals later, it is one of the company’s oldest extant productions and Dialogues the most often performed opera composed in the second half of the 20th Century. 
Poulenc’s subject had a long, circuitous, and highly unusual genesis, originating in a tragic episode of the Reign of Terror related in a 19th-century memoir by Mère Marie de l’Incarnation, a Carmelite nun who had survived the destruction of the her convent and the execution of its religious community during the French Revolution. The memoir served as the source for a 1931 novella, “The Last on the Scaffold,” by German author Gertud von Le Fort. In its turn, the novella inspired a film scenario for which the celebrated novelist, Georges Bernanos, was commissioned in 1947 to write the dialogue. His text was subsequently adapted for the theater. The play was first staged in Germany in 1951 and then in France in 1953. Urged by his publisher to undertake a project for which he had well-known deep affinities, Poulenc completed the libretto and score of Dialogues des Carmélites in 1955. The opera was premiered in 1957 at Milan’s La Scala in Italian, in accord with the composer’s dictate that the text be sung in the vernacular of the audience.

Dialogues des Carmélites traces the spiritual journey of Blanche de la Force (an invention of von Le Fort), a young aristocrat, from the eve of the French Revolution to the darkest days of the Terror. Act I defines the morbidly fearful Blanche as she determines to leave her ancestral home in search of refuge in a Carmelite convent. The Old Prioress of the religious order, the high-born Madame de Croissy, cautions Blanche that the convent is not a refuge but a house devoted to prayer. In the complete recording of the cast of the 1957 Opéra de Paris premiere, we hear Denise Duval as Blanche and Denise Scharley as Madame de Croissy. Duval created the leading soprano roles in Poulenc’s three operas, the last two, Dialogues des Carmélites and La Voix humaine composed specifically with her voice and artistry in mind. Although mezzo-soprano Scharley never sang in North America, she pursued an active European career. Her sensational Madame de Croissy is at once commanding in her declamation of the rigorous rule of the order and tender towards the fragile, new postulant.


At the close of Act I, Blanche is witness to the agony of the dying Madame de Croissy and to the blasphemous imprecations of the woman who had been for so many a model of piety.
In Act II, the New Prioress, Madame Lidoine, evokes her own humble birth as she exhorts the nuns to humility in the face of the imminent Terror. She exhorts them also to shun the temptation of martyrdom, a diversion from the duty of prayer. Régine Crespin, she too a member of the first Paris cast, renders the forthright message of her extended monologue with her characteristic creamy timbre.

In Act III, the New Prioress comforts the congregation, imprisoned in the Conciergerie while awaiting the guillotine. She assents to the collective vow of martyrdom, reminding her flock that, in the Garden of Olives, Christ himself knew the fear of death. The sumptuous voice of Jessye Norman fills that phrase with overwhelming feeling.

The opera’s finale enacts the execution of the Carmelites. They sing in a chorus of diminishing numbers the serene prayer, “Salve Regina,” punctuated by the brutal sound of the falling blade as one by one each goes to her death. At the very end, Blanche, who had escaped arrest, and whose fear of life and death runs through the narrative, joins her sisters as the last to ascend the scaffold and the last to be heard. The unforgettable emotional charge of the scene is realized through the unflinching depiction of the horrific event and the joy of spiritual transcendence that flows from the protagonist, finally free of her own terrors. This video is excerpted from a recent South American production.