Published: Feb. 9, 2016

Eklund Opera Program to Present Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites by Melanie Shaffer

With the title Dialogues of the Carmélites, the opera by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) might sound rather mundane. However, this opera is based on the true story of the Carmelite nuns of Compiégne who were beheaded at the guillotine in the last days of the French Revolution.

The Civil Conservation of the Clergy, passed into law in 1790, prohibited anyone from taking religious vows in France and required all clergy to sign an oath of support for the government. The nuns of Compiègne managed to remain in their convent for a time, but in 1792 the nuns were evicted, split into several groups, and forbidden to wear their habits. Though they signed the required, government-supporting oath, they continued to gather in secret to pray together. In 1794 their activities were investigated, and they were imprisoned and convicted of “counter-revolutionary consultations and assemblies.” As they were led to the guillotine, the nuns renewed their vows and sang as they marched, ending with a chorus of “Laudate Dominum Omnes Gentes.” One by one their voices were silenced.

Dialogues Image 2

It is not surprising that such a dramatic, inherently musical story inspired Poulenc, who became a devout Catholic in the middle of his life. However, the story also spawned numerous literary and artistic adaptations, and therefore an increasingly complicated battle over rights to the story.

First was Gertrud von Le Fort’s 1931 novel Die Letzte am Schafott (The Last on the Scaffold). Her novel was not strictly historically and added the character of Blanche de la Force, who represented her own autobiographical fear of a weak faith and the angst of WWI Germany. The character of Blanche proved to be an enduring element in future adaptations. The novel was immediately popular and translated into English and French within two years. Next, Father Bruckberger took up the story as a film scenario in 1946 and asked Georges Bernanos, an important Catholic writer, to write the screenplay. The film never came to fruition, but Bernanos’ Dialogues was cohesive enough to be published as a successful play. Meanwhile, in the U.S., playwright Emmet Lavery secured rights to von Le Fort’s novel for an English adaptation of the play, Song at the Scaffold, without van de Fort realizing she was signing off exclusive rights. Therefore, when Poulenc began to adapt the story, he discovered that he needed Emmet Lavery’s permission. A long legal process finally determined that he could proceed with the opera but that Lavery’s name must be on every program.

Poulenc’s introduction to the story was through Bernanos’ text, and he was enthralled especially by its spiritual emphasis on the communion of saints and transfer of grace as seen in the line “We do not die for ourselves alone, but for, or instead of, each other.”  As a Catholic, he spoke several times of how perfect the subject was for him.

Poulenc was obsessed with the opera and wrote so furiously that he seldom went out. In several letters he spoke of the characters and their music as if they were real people living and dying as he wrote their music. As the nuns grappled with faith and fear, Poulenc grappled with his own faith and relationship with his lover, Lucien Roubert, in whose company Poulenc began and completed the opera. Poulenc thought his anxiety and grief over Lucien to be necessary for his compositional process, saying in letters that all his mixed feelings, anguish, and sufferings regarding his relationship with Lucien were necessary for the Carmelites. Poulenc believed that the completion of the opera would serve as closure for his feelings about their relationship and, in a way, serve as the “secret” of the piece. Lucien Roubert died the same hour Poulenc finished the opera. Rather than the “Laudate Dominum,” Poulenc chose to have the nuns singing “Salve Regina” at the moment of their execution—a Marian antiphon that befits the sense of mourning and seeking of mercy in the story as well as Poulenc’s life.

The anguish, suffering, and days spent alone paid off. Dialogues immediately met with great success, and productions were quickly launched in Italy, France, and the United States. Poulenc received a good deal of supportive fan mail about the opera. Poulenc wrote the opera in a 19th century style, admitting that “My Carmelites can only sing tonal music. You must forgive them.” Poulenc’s music focuses on the vocal line, emphasizing melody that well articulates the text rather than overwhelming orchestration. Yet Poulenc did not feel inferior to composers who wrote in a more modern idiom (For examples of a more modern aesthetic: Claude Debussy’s Pelleas and Melisande), but rather thought that there was a place for new music that was content to use old chords.

But, as Levar Burton used to say, “You don’t have to take my word for it” (or Poulenc’s for that matter). Through the CU Music Library’s video and audio subscriptions, you can listen to the The Dialogues of the Carmélites on Naxos Music Library or watch a production through streaming video via Alexander Street Press.

You can also listen to it (in English!) on CD or look at scores at the Waltz Music Library and learn more about Francis Poulenc and theCarmélites on Grove Music Online.

Finally, you can go see CU’s Eklund Opera Program’s production at Macky Auditorium on March 11th and 13th. Tickets are available from CU Presents. While available, students can get a free ticket at the Box Office between Feb. 29-March 11!

Post by Melanie Shaffer, Provost’s Fellow in the Libraries

Banner image courtesy of the Eklund Opera Program. Image above,

Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Quidenham, Norfolk by John Salmon. Used under CC BY SA 2.0