Les Dialogues des Carmelites

PHOTOALBUM

Libretto by Georges Bernanos

Stage Director – Dmitry Bertman
Music Director – Vladimir Ponkin
Set and Costume Designers – Igor Nezhny and Tatiana Tulubieva
Playing time  – 2 hours 30 minutes (one intermission)
Premiere  –  April 28, 2004
Language of performance: French, Russian subtitles

Opera of French composer Francis Poulenc “Les Dialogues des Carmelites” was created in 1956 for Milan’s “La Scala” theater after G. Bernanos play. The libretto is based on the tragic story of the French revolution times.

Revolutionary authorities issue a decree about liquidation of Carmelites monastery. The nuns led by mother superior are condemned themselves to excruciating death at the scaffold. Blanche, Marquise de la Force’s daughter, who took shelter in the saint cloister, decides to meet the destiny sharing the sad lot with her saviors.

“Les Dialogues des Carmelites” is one of the brightest Poulenc’s works, in which the composer reaches the highest tragic power. The expressive melodious women parts, rich musical substance of the composition made it desirable for stages of many opera theatres. “Les Dialogues des Carmelites” were staged in Paris, London, San-Francisco. Part of Blanche, the main heroine, has coloured the repertoire of world’s most famous soprano: Denise Duval, Kiri Te Kanawa, Carol Vaness.

HISTORY

In 1947 the Catholic writer Georges Bernanos turned to a movie script based on the novel by Gertrud von le Fort “Die Letzte am Schafott”. The novel is a narrative of the Martyrs of Compiègne, Carmelite nuns who were guillotined by order of the revolutionary tribunal in Paris on 17 July 1794. There are true historical figures in the story, and only the main character Blanche is the creation of the author’s imagination. At first the Bernanos’s script was rejected, because there were too many dialogs, so the writer converted it into the stage play. Francis Poulenc paid his attention to it upon the recommendation of Guido Valcarenghi, the Director of “Ricordi” Publishing House. In his childhood he often saw nuns dressed in brown cloaks and rope sandals in Paris. Many French girls wanted to become Carmelites after the biography of a young nun Therese of Lisieux “l’Histoire d’une Âme” had been published (1897).

A great deal of dialogs didn’t scare Poulenc — the composer was able to respond this challenge. Following Bernanos he saw the eventless chapter of the humble nuns’ life as a drama about fear of death and its overcoming. Later on Jean-Paul Sartre described similar things in “Les Mots” (1964): “this pathos would suddenly seize some of my best friends in a state of fear or anger… One of them, after a serious illness, assured us that he had experienced the pangs of death, including the last gasp. Nizan was the most obsessed of all. At times, when fully awake, he would see himself as a corpse; he would stand up, his eyes swarming with worms, would grope for his pork-pie hat, and would disappear. The next day we would find him, drunk, with strangers…” 

Being not afraid of the audience’s reaction, Poulenc headlined word “dialogues”. Three composers of the past — Claudio Monteverdi, Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky and Claude Debussy — helped him to solve the most difficult professional task, and thankful, he devoted his work to them. Surely, the music of the French language was also helpful in his writing. Poulenc was composing like delirious, totally submerging himself into his work. Otherwise he could hardly have managed to achieve such unity of all the elements: patters, choir prayers, orchestra interludes. They are interconnected by distinctive melodic intonations, the rhythm of sarabande pervading the opera, haunting harmonies. The musical language of Poulenc is very conservative and partially dates back to the “Symphony of Psalms” by Igor Stravinsky (1930) and stops at this turn. But the composer gets inspired by the music and poetry of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. On the scaffold the nuns are singing the verses of the magnificat antiphon “Salve, Regina, Mater misericordiae” and the hymn “Veni, Creator Spiritus!”

The opera was opened on 26 January 1957 at La Scala. There was no such a success since Puccini’s death. In Paris “The Carmelites” were performed on 27 June of the same year. Even now they are put on the world stages and are always welcomed guests. The part of Blanche de la Force decorated repertoire of the world best sopranos, among which are Denise Duval, Kiri Te Kanawa and Carol Vaness.

Francis Poulenc said that he put the best, true essence of himself in his church and choir compositions. It may be also related to his opera “Les Dialogues des Carmelites”.
 

SUMMARY

Act 1
Feeling herself as a burden in the house of her father Marquis de la Force, who suffers from the grief for his wife passed away long ago, and because of her strange relationship with her brother Chevalier, Blanche decides to retreat from the world and enter the Compiegne Carmelite Monastery. There, in the close reclusion, she hopes to cure her bouts of panic fear. 

In the monastery Blanche meets Mother Henriette of Jesus, the old dying prioress, who suddenly becomes as mother to her. Having become a novice, Blanche gets acquainted with the nuns. A young nun Constance is especially affectionate to her. The nuns of different ages live in the monastery. Both young Blanche and old lame Mother Jeanne find their protection there. 

The sub-prioress Mother Marie of the Incarnation, the most passionate of the nuns, is every minute with the dying prioress. As Mother Henriette of Jesus has passed away, the new prioress Mother Marie of St. Augustine calls the nuns for low and coherent devotion to God, in spite of the revolutionary chaos, embraced their motherland.

Act 2
Blanche’s brother Chevalier, who has decided to leave miserable France, comes to the monastery to take farewell to Blanche. The nuns hide a forbidden chaplain from the government. They are all in a fluster, because nobody has protected the altar servant. Then Mother Marie of the Incarnation calls on the nuns to give their lives for the faith and France. The military men rush into the monastery. They commit outrages. 

Mother Marie of the Incarnation proposes that the nuns take a vow of martyrdom. The chaplain blesses them all. In the emerging mess Blanche leaves the monastery and comes back to her father’s house. In accordance with the governmental decree the Carmelites must be thrust out of the monastery. They are frightened and stunned. Mother Marie of the Incarnation reminds them of their duty and sets forth to get Blanche back.

The nuns have been arrested. The prioress tries to calm them down. The police officer pronounces the judgements of death, reading out the names of all of the nuns. The Carmelites’ fate has been determined. Mother Marie, who had called on the nuns’ sacrificial deed so passionately, happened to be out of prison. The chaplain saved from the punishment is ready to support her and to cast in his lot with her.

The nuns (one by one) slowly mount the scaffold. At the last minute, Blanche appears and joins the condemned community. 

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