Dialogues des Carmélites

About

Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the classic John Dexter production of Poulenc’s devastating story of faith and martyrdom. Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard sings the touching role of Blanche and soprano Karita Mattila, a legend in her own time, returns to the Met as the Prioress.

Estimated Runtime

3 HRS 9 MINS

Sung In

French

 

 

 

Met Titles In

English

COMPOSER

Francis Poulenc

French composer Francis Poulenc (1899–1963) is known for a wide variety of works in many genres, including piano and chamber music, songs, ballets, three operas, and religious music, successfully combining mysticism with modern sensibilities. Poulenc wrote the opera's libretto himself, based on an unproduced screenplay (that was then turned into a stage play) by Georges Bernanos (1888–1948), a French author with an interest in politics and religion, which in turn is based on the 1931 novella Die Letzte am Schafott (known in English as The Song at the Scaffold) by German writer Gertrud von Le Fort (1876–1971).

Music

Poulenc’s genius with the setting of text is apparent throughout the opera, much of which consists of recitative that closely follows speech patterns. While there is an abundance of creative harmonic invention, the score is fundamentally tonal. Musical motifs reveal both character traits and the circumstances that formed them. The most arresting combination of the internal, spiritual, and dramatic musical worlds occurs in the celebrated finale: The fervent prayer of the Salve Regina is sung over a repeating figure in the orchestra, as each of the nuns meets her execution and their voices are silenced one by one.

Setting

The opera takes place between 1789 and 1794 in Paris and in the town of Compiègne in northeastern France, the site of the Carmelite nuns’ convent. Its historical basis is the martyrdom of a group of 16 Carmelite nuns and lay sisters from Compiègne, who chose to offer themselves as victims for the restoration of peace to France during the Revolution.

History

World Premiere: Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 1957.

One of the most successful operas of the later decades of the 20th century, Dialogues des Carmélites is a rare case of a modern work that is equally esteemed by audiences and experts. The opera focuses on a young member of an order of Carmelite nuns, the aristocratic Blanche de la Force, who must overcome a pathological timidity in order to answer her life’s calling. The score reflects key aspects of its composer’s personality: Francis Poulenc was an urbane Parisian with a profound mystical dimension, and the opera addresses both the characters’ internal lives and their external realities.

Synopsis

Act I

Paris, April 1789. The first signs of the French Revolution are beginning to shake the country. The Marquis de la Force and his son, the Chevalier, are worried about Blanche, the Chevalier’s fearful, nervous sister, whose carriage has been held up by a mob on her way home. When Blanche arrives she makes light of the incident, but her anxiety is revealed when a servant’s shadow frightens her as she leaves the room. Shaken, she returns to tell her father that she has made up her mind to become a nun.

Weeks later at the Carmelite convent in Compiègne, Blanche is interviewed by Madame de Croissy, the aged and ailing prioress, who makes it clear to Blanche that the convent is a house of prayer, not a refuge. The prioress is touched by Blanche’s resolve to embrace her new life.

Blanche and young Sister Constance discuss their fear of death, which Constance claims to have overcome. Blanche admits her envy of her companion’s straightforward and easygoing nature. Constance shocks Blanche by telling her that she knows they will both die young and on the same day.

Madame de Croissy is lying on her deathbed, struggling to appear calm. She blesses Blanche and consigns her, as the youngest member of the order, to the care of the loyal Mère Marie. The prioress confesses her fear in the hour of death, then she falls back lifeless.

Act II

Paris, April 1789. The first signs of the French Revolution are beginning to shake the country. The Marquis de la Force and his son, the Chevalier, are worried about Blanche, the Chevalier’s fearful, nervous sister, whose carriage has been held up by a mob on her way home. When Blanche arrives she makes light of the incident, but her anxiety is revealed when a servant’s shadow frightens her as she leaves the room. Shaken, she returns to tell her father that she has made up her mind to become a nun.

Weeks later at the Carmelite convent in Compiègne, Blanche is interviewed by Madame de Croissy, the aged and ailing prioress, who makes it clear to Blanche that the convent is a house of prayer, not a refuge. The prioress is touched by Blanche’s resolve to embrace her new life.

Blanche and young Sister Constance discuss their fear of death, which Constance claims to have overcome. Blanche admits her envy of her companion’s straightforward and easygoing nature. Constance shocks Blanche by telling her that she knows they will both die young and on the same day.

Madame de Croissy is lying on her deathbed, struggling to appear calm. She blesses Blanche and consigns her, as the youngest member of the order, to the care of the loyal Mère Marie. The prioress confesses her fear in the hour of death, then she falls back lifeless.

Act III

In the devastated chapel, Mère Marie suggests in Madame Lidoine’s absence that they all take a vow of martyrdom by unanimous decision. Noting Blanche’s reaction, the others suspect she will vote against it. When the secret ballot reveals one dissenter, Constance claims it was she and asks to reverse her vote so the vow can proceed. Blanche, afraid to live or to die, runs away. The sisters are led from the convent.

Blanche is forced to work as a servant in the ransacked mansion of her father, who has been sent to the guillotine. Mère Marie finds her there to take her back to the sisters. On the streets, Blanche learns that the nuns have been arrested.

At the Conciergerie prison, Madame Lidoine joins the sisters in their vow of martyrdom. Constance says that she has dreamed of Blanche’s return. A jailer enters and reads the death sentence. Madame Lidoine blesses the sisters. When Mère Marie learns from the chaplain that the nuns will die, she wants to join them, but the chaplain reminds her that it is for God to decide whether or not she will be a martyr.

A crowd has gathered on the Place de la Révolution. The Carmelites walk towards the guillotine, led by Madame Lidoine and singing the Salve Regina. With each stroke of the blade, their voices are cut off one by one, finally leaving only Constance. On her way to the scaffold, she sees Blanche step up from the crowd, take up the chant, and follow her to her death.

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