Opera Abbreviated: Poulenc's 'Dialogues of the Carmelites'

May 8, 2019

Some operas inspire reverence beyond who gets kissed and who gets killed. Francis Poulenc’s The Dialogues of the Carmelites is chief among them.

This is the story of the 16 Carmelite nuns who were guillotined at the Place de la Revolution in Paris on July 17, 1794. The French Revolution was eating its own people. A newly secularized society could not tolerate women who lived in community.

Legend has it the sisters walked calmly to their deaths, singing the Salve Regina, as their voices dropped away one by one.

Ten days later, Maximilien Robespierre took his turn with “Madame la Guillotine,” and the terror was over.

The Met has performed Les dialogues des Carmelites, first in English, now in the original French, 59 times since that 1977 premiere. Always in John Dexter’s austere and terrifying staging. Always to sold-out houses.

The Met’s live in HD presentation this Saturday, May 11 will be the company’s 60th performance.

I remember very well the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Carmelites. It was broadcast on February 5, 1977. I was in college. I didn’t know this opera. I knew about it but hadn’t heard a note. Good Catholic boy I was, the idea of martyred nuns had a certain appeal.

I was unprepared for the beauty of the music and the drama of this true story, sung in English. I was unprepared for the silence from the audience at the very end of the opera. Commentator Peter Allen broke in.

“The audience is stunned,” he said. “People don’t know how to react.”

Eventually a roar went up. You would have thought Tebaldi had come back in great voice. The cheers and applause and audience roar went on and on.

The next day, Byron Belt wrote in the Long Island Press:

"The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Francis Poulenc's magnificent 'Dialogues of the Carmelites' has brought nobility, grandeur and searing musical drama to the house in the most impressive mounting of a major work in several seasons.

"The Bernanos-Poulenc drama of the physical and spiritual anguish of a convent of Carmelite nuns during the worst excesses of the French Revolution," he continued, "has inspired John Dexter to his finest local achievement, and the simple, stunning designs of David Reppa and the superb lightning of Gil Wechsler, assisted by Jane Greenwood's appropriate costumes, all contribute to a towering triumph."

The story of the martyrs of Compiegne was the basis of a 1931 novel by Gertrud von le Fort called The Last One on the Scaffold. The book was adapted into a screenplay by Georges Bernanos and, by the early 1950s, Poulenc had a text for his newest opera.

The premiere was held not in Paris in French, but at La Scala, Milan, in Italian, during January 1957. Poulenc favored this opera being sung in the language of the audience.

“After all,” he said, “this opera is called Dialogues.