Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” is based on the true story of the Martyrs of Compiègne, a community of sixteen Carmelite nuns who were guillotined during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. Many hold it in high esteem as one of the twentieth century’s greatest operas.

Francis Poulenc

The Metropolitan Opera’s series of High Definition (HD) broadcasts, transmitting opera performances live into movie theaters around the world, has been a bright spot on the cultural landscape for some time. Attending an HD broadcast is the next best thing to being at the opera house, and sometimes it can be even better. That was my distinct impression when I attended this season’s revival of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, one of the company’s most revered productions.

The 1957 opera is based on the true story of the Martyrs of Compiègne, a community of sixteen Carmelite nuns who were guillotined during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. The libretto is the work of Georges Bernanos, the French Catholic author best known for his novel The Diary of a Country Priest.

Dialogues balances the sweep of historical events with the inner spiritual journey of Blanche de la Force, a young woman from an aristocratic family who fears the oncoming Revolution. Blanche’s fear impels her to join the Carmelite order, but in doing so she goes straight into the target of the revolutionary mob. Arrested and cast out of their convent, the nuns take a vow of martyrdom rather than renounce their vocation. Blanche initially panics and runs away, but at the last moment she finds her courage, steps out from the crowd, and joins her sisters at the guillotine.

Many hold Dialogues in high esteem as one of the twentieth century’s greatest operas, even for its subject alone. The intolerant repression of religion by the architects of the French Revolution—ironically carried out in the name of “liberty,” “fraternity,” and “equality”—is a story that must be told, with heroic themes befitting grand opera.

If I have reservations about the piece, it is largely because its first half is filled with abstract spiritual discussions that are poorly suited to musical treatment. This portion of the opera feels static and verbose—not to mention overlong—with Poulenc having little to do but spin exquisite filigree around the text, between increasingly powerful orchestral interludes.

The opera’s second half livens up considerably, though, as the revolutionary forces close in on the convent and the nuns take their vow of martyrdom. This is a spiritual, even intellectual opera, one that examines themes of fear and grace—particularly what Poulenc termed “transfer of grace” by which one human death can redeem another.

Dialogues of the Carmelites was the climax of Francis Poulenc’s career as a religious composer, a role for which he seemed at first an unlikely candidate. The son of a devoutly Catholic businessman from the south of France, Poulenc (1899-1963) moved into chic and very secular Parisian circles in the 1920s. He composed music that was lighthearted, ironic, and irreverent, thumbing his nose at the pretensions of German romanticism and proclaiming a new era of wit and spontaneity.

After a friend died tragically in a car accident in 1936, Poulenc was drawn back to his boyhood Catholicism. This re-conversion led immediately to a series of religious compositions: a beautiful and radiant Mass in G for a cappella choir, and the austere Litanies to the Black Virgin, dedicated to Our Lady of Rocamadour, the rocky shrine in southern France where Poulenc found his faith again. Of similar make are his two fine sets of a cappella motets pour le temps de Noel (for Christmas) and Pour un temps de penitence (for Lent). All these are vintage examples of the Parisian neoclassicism perfected in the workshop of the great teacher Nadia Boulanger.

World War Two contributed further to the more sober tone and newfound depth in Poulenc’s music. The powerful Concerto in G minor for Organ, Strings and Timpani (1938), with its strong notes of terror and foreboding, seems to herald the coming conflict. In the closing months of the war, as his beloved Paris was nearing liberation, Poulenc wrote La figure humaine, a cantata about freedom set to poems by Paul Eluard.

Poulenc never renounced his earlier light, flippant style; he sublimated it to new ends. Out of the frivolous and devout sides of his personality, Poulenc created a style of religious music that juxtaposes sacred and profane elements to highly original effect. His two large-scale works for chorus and orchestra, Stabat Mater (1951) and Gloria (1961), represent the zenith of his religious output. They are like a contrasting pair of pendants. The Stabat Mater attains genuine eloquence and nobility, while the Gloria is just about as lovable as sacred music can be. At their best, these works convey a beautifully Catholic sense of the wholeness of human experience.

Poulenc’s final composition was the Holy Week choral cycle Sept repons des tenebres (Seven Tenebrae Responses), premiered at Lincoln Center in New York in 1963 after his death—one of the darkest, most anguished works he ever wrote and one in which he opened his window to the possibilities of twelve-tone music.

With all these works Poulenc all but silenced critics who had previously dismissed him as a lightweight. Dialogues of the Carmelites proved to be his most ambitious work and has become one of the handful of regularly performed twentieth-century operas. Premiered in 1957, it is certainly the last opera to have become a classic of the repertoire.

Yet there is one critical charge that seems to stick to Poulenc—and has some relevance to Dialogues—and that is his quirky relationship with large-scale musical form. If Dialogues sometimes feels too episodic, as if Poulenc is recycling a small stock of chords and thematic motifs rather than developing them, it can’t be denied that the opera offers plenty of moment-to-moment beauty. And if perhaps Poulenc’s other religious compositions contain his best music, the score for Dialogues provides a solid framework for the projection of a moving drama. This came out strongly at the Met performance, which was almost beyond criticism in every department, vocal and visual.

Bernanos’ original text for Dialogues was an allegory of the loss of faith and increasing godlessness of the modern age, drawing parallels between the Reign of Terror and contemporary Fascism and Communism. And while some recent stagings have updated the action to the twentieth century, the Met’s happily remains in the French Revolution era. The alternately chilling and thrilling final scene, in which the nuns walk one by one to their execution while singing the Salve Regina—the chop of the guillotine blade heard menacingly offstage—is handled with discretion and taste, resulting in a most moving and cathartic theatrical experience.

Seeing the opera in cinematic form turned out to be a tremendous benefit—perhaps not surprising given that Bernanos’ text was originally conceived as a screenplay. The opportunity for close-ups and varied angles brought greater depth and psychological dimension to the characters and situations than would be possible in the theater. These visuals, combined with the spiritual radiance of Poulenc’s harmony and the sweep of the drama, made for an unforgettable three hours. At the end, there was no doubt in my mind that the religious works of Poulenc—weaknesses and all—constitute an artistic contribution of power and permanence.

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Editor’s Note: The image of Francis Poulenc above is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The featured image is a still from the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Dialogues of the Carmelites.

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