This season, the Des Moines Metro Opera presents Francis Poulenc’s opera “Dialogues des Carmelites”. Though the opera has been hailed as one of the few true operatic masterpieces of the 20th century, it is not staged as often as expected. The work has no memorable tunes, requires a large cast, and asks for a great deal of emotional commitment from its audience. In these hard financial times, it does not stick out as the most obvious choice for planning an operatic season. However, if the reviews of the first night performance are to be trusted, the company’s gamble appears to have been well worth it.
Francis Poulenc was born in Paris at the turn of the 20th century to a family of exceeding wealth (the family business being what is now called the Rhone-Poulenc chemical corporation). During his early career, he projected an outwardly rambunctious and feisty disposition, though he would later reveal himself to be an anxious hypocondriac. Not formally trained in the conservatoire, he nonetheless established a reputation as a composer of elegant songs and was championed by fashionable society circles. His musical career, as was surely that of any composer in Europe, was highly influenced by the advent of the world wars. In 1917, the Paris musical scene was thirsty to move beyond the rigors of Wagnerism, and this atmosphere gave rose to a conglomerate of reactionary French composers known as “Les Six”. Though Poulenc’s musical sensibilities never challenged tonality or melodic lyricism, he was duly grouped with Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud and Germaine Tailleferre under this loose banner. The association did propel his name to the attention of the critics, to whom his uneven musical pedigree inspired plenty of dismissal. These misgivings were shared by the composer, whose ambitions aimed towards the operatic stage were kept secret until the time was right.
When that time came, he resorted towards a brief comic farce based on the play by the surrealist poet Guillaume Apollinaire: “Les Mamelles di Tiresias”. When the work premiered at the Opera Comique on June 1947, it was not received with open arms. Denise Duval, the creator of the role of Tiresias, remembers: “We were booed, insulted, and hissed. In fact, it was a theme too advanced for those times. I had to wear not only trousers but a beard, and I had to act like a man while my husband sat at home, produced babies and attended to household chores”. If this was the intention of Poulenc, the anxious composer still second guessing his talents and hoping to first distract the nay-sayers, the strategy paid off. Following the opening night’s bruhaha, the remainder of the run proved to the critics that the music was not half bad, and the audience began to listen: The trial balloon had succeeded, and gave proof to Poulenc that he could hold the audience’s attention for a longer span than he ever suspected. Still, the question whether he could deliver a serious full-length opera persisted. When the house of Ricordi approached him in 1953 with a commission for the Teatro alla Scala di Milano (opera’s holiest of theaters), it was for a ballet based on the live of St. Margarita di Cortona. Poulenc declined, and at his insistence, the subject shifted to opera. Georges Bernanos’s Dialogues des Carmelites, a play based on the novel by Gertrud von Le Fort dealing with the lives of a group of Carmelite nuns during the time of the French Revolution, was placed on the table. Poulenc took the manuscript to a café in Rome, where he “devoured” the content, and two days later he accepted the assignment.
Poulenc began to work on the score as early as August 1953, and from the outset tailored the role of Blanche with the voice of soprano Denise Duval in mind. His labor obsessed him, and in a letter to his close friend and song muse, Pierre Bernac he confessed: “I’m so passionately involved with my work that the briefest outing seems like a waste of time”. That letter was sent on September 1953, and by March of the following year the majority of the first act and the second scene of act two were veritably complete. But here the Carmelites train came to a screeching halt. Suffering both from woes brought on by his volatile homosexual relationship with Lucien Robert, and with difficulties in acquiring the legal rights to the libretto of the opera, the emotionally unstable Poulenc shelved the score in a cupboard, cancelled an important tour of Germany, and checked himself to the L’Haÿ-les-Roses clinic for seven days. The subject of the opera, and his spiritual connection with the character of Blanche de la Force no doubt contributed to his meltdown. The ensuing crisis lasted until 1955, when he took up the score again, and completed the orchestration by June of 1956. He dedicated his score to four composers: Debussy, Monteverdi, Verdi and Moussorgsky, and while Poulenc was heavily influenced by these four pillars of European music, it is Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande that his new opera most takes after. Though the orchestra is large, it is employed mainly to underline the voices, and the importance of the text remains the raison d’etre of the proceedings. The score has no isolated tunes, and is at all times propelled by melody and lyricism. The result is a constant display of luminosity and mysticism, frequently interrupted by violent outbursts from the pit.
Act one opens in Paris, in the estate of the Marquis de la Force. The date is April 1789, and we are on the eve of the French revolution,. The Chevalier de la Force worries that his sister Blanche’s carriage was seen surrounded by rioting peasants in the outskirts of Paris. The Marquis is reminded of a similar incident years before, which resulted in the death of his late wife and the premature birth of Blanche, who has since grown into an overly fearful young lady. Blanche enters suddenly and confirms that “just that single window between my frightened self and that mob” indeed rattled her frail temperament. The Chevalier and Blanche exeunt, but soon after a scream is heard. Blanche reenters the library: A shadow has startled her. She turns to her father and announces her desire to become a nun. Though the Marquis is reluctant, he gives in to her request.
The following scene opens several weeks later in the parlour of the Carmelites convent in Compiegne. Blanche addresses the Prioress, Madame de Croissy, and reveals her intentions to join the order. The incapacitated Prioress (she is bound to an armchair) questions Blanche’s resolve, and warns that there is no heroism in religion. The sole focus of the order is to pray. She asks Blanche what prospective name she has chosen if she’d be admitted, to which Blanche replies: “Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ”
Following another brief prelude, the curtain opens on the third scene to reveal that Blanche has been accepted to the order of the Carmelites. We are in the gatehouse of the convent, where she and a young nun, Constance de Saint-Denis, are sorting provisions. Upon listening to Constance’s lighthearted chatter, Blanche scolds the young lady: One must not speak in such manner while the Prioress languishes in her sick bed. Constance replies that if she could, she’d gladly offer her life for that of the Prioress. In an extraordinary exchange, the young ladies discuss their views of death. Constance then reveals that she believes that they will both die young, and on the same day. Blanche dismisses her words.
In the infirmary, the Prioress lies on her sickbed and knows that death is near. She confesses to Mother Marie that she feels abandoned by God. The years of reflection and meditation have served little as a way of preparation for this final moment, and she’s afraid. She thinks of Blanche, and places the young nun’s spiritual development in the care of Mother Marie. Blanche enters and the Prioress tenderly blesses her one more time. The Prioress asks the physician for another dose of medicine, but when he refuses, the old woman enters a state of delirium as her death pangs begin. She describes a vision where she has seen the chapel desecrated, and announces that God has forsaken the order. Mother Marie tries to keep the nuns from seeing the Prioress in this state, but Blanche returns just in time to witness the Prioress’s agonizing final moments.
When Act Two opens, it is night in the convent chapel where the body of the Prioress lies in an open coffin. Though Constance and Blanche have been keeping watch, their shift has come to an end, and Constance leaves to fetch their replacements. Left alone with what remains of the Prioress, Blanche grows fearful and makes towards the exit but is stopped by Mother Marie, who, recognizing the young nun’s genuine fear, escorts her back to her quarters. The next scene takes place in the Garden, where Constance and Blanche have gathered flowers for the grave of the Prioress. Constance wonders whether Mother Marie will be named the new Prioress, and Blanche admonishes her presumption that God would act in accordance to her wishes. Constance offers that what they view as chance is perhaps God’s logic, just as the Prioress’ gruesome death may have been intended for someone else. She then muses that “someone else, when it will be his turn to die, will be surprised that he finds it so easy.”
The nuns have gathered in the Chapter room for the ceremony of obedience to the new Prioress, Madame Lidoine. She addresses the order and reminds all that prayer is their duty, and martyrdom a reward.
As the national unrest reaches a fever pitch, the Chevalier de la Force makes plans to leave the country and pays the convent a visit. Madame Lidoine allows for the visit as long as Mother Marie remains present during the meeting between the Chevalier and Blanche. The Chevalier accuses Blanche of remaining at the convent out of fear and insists that she should return to their father. Blanche assures him that she is a daughter of the Carmel and is his companion in battle. She insists that she is no longer afraid, but when the Chevalier leaves, she struggles to keep from collapsing. Mother Marie assists her off stage.
The political unrest of the outside world begins to catch up with the Carmelite nuns. The Chaplain informs the nuns that he has been forbidden to officiate by the civil authorities, and the mass he just conducted will be his last. As he leaves, he tells Blanche that he has received orders from his superiors to disguise himself, and that he will remain near. Led by Constance, the nuns discuss the idea that France will no longer protect its priests, inspiring Mother Marie to announce that the Carmelites should offer their lives for the cause. Madame Lidoine disagrees and reminds the nuns that martyrdom is not a choice. She leaves the nuns in a state of shock, which is broken by the abrupt reentrance of the Chaplain, who has returned seeking refuge from the angry crowd. Four commissioners enter the convent and announce that the revolutionary government has confiscated all religious houses and that the sisters must evacuate the premises. Mother Jeanne announces that Madame Lidoine has departed to Paris, and seeing the distraught Blanche she offers her a small statue of the Christ child to calm her. A shout from outside rattles Blanche and she drops the figurine, which smashes to pieces on the floor.
Act three of Dialogues des Carmelites opens in the convent, which has been looted. The nuns are gathered around Mother Marie, who in the absence of Madame Lidoine has taken up the leadership role. She proposes that the nuns take a unanimous vow of martyrdom as a way to preserve the order. When a dissenting ballot is revealed the nuns suspect Blanche, but Constance claims responsibility and asks to reverse her decision. In pairs, the nuns kneel to accept the vow, and in the confusion Blanche escapes. During the interlude, Madame Lidoine and the rest of the Carmelites have assembled before a group of soldiers. A revolutionary officer welcomes them as new citizens of the republic, and warns them against reverting to their former activities. Concerned, Madame Lidoine sends word that the Chaplain must not conduct Mass, but Mother Marie notes that these actions openly contradict the nun’s vow of martyrdom. Madame Lidoine maintains her position, and reminds the nuns that she must answer for the order at large.
Blanche has escaped to her former home, which is now occupied by strangers, and has taken up duties as a servant. Her father has fallen prey to the guillotine, and when Mother Marie requests for her to return to the convent, Blanche succumbs to her overwhelming fears and refuses. During the interlude that follows, Blanche hears a rumor that the nuns have been arrested.
In the third scene, the Carmelites find themselves in Paris within the confines of the prison at Conciergerie. Madame Lidoine addresses the order with reassuring words, and joins the rest by taking up the vow of martyrdom.
Constance worries over Blanche’s absence and confesses that she has dreamt that she will return. A jailer addresses the nuns and informs them that the Revolutionary Tribunal has sentenced them to death. In a street near the Bastille, the Chaplain tells Mother Marie of the nuns’ sentence. She is horrified that her sisters will die without her, but the Chaplain reassures her that she should follow God’s will.
The final scene of the opera takes place on July 17, 1794. Amidst a crowd of onlookers, the nuns meet their fate at the Place de la Revolution. As their voices rise in the Salve Regina, one by one, beginning with Madame Lidoine, is silenced as the guillotine gradually diminishes their chant. In the end, Constance remains. As she walks towards the scaffold she sees that Blanche has pushed her way through the crowd and has joined her in song. The people watch in amazement as Blanche calmly follows Constance to the guillotine.
Poulenc placed the utmost importance in the opera’s text, and he insisted that the opera be performed in the language of the audience. The Italian premiere of Dialogues des Carmelites took place at La Scala on January 26, 1957 with Virginia Zeani (Blanche,) Leyla Gencer (Madame Lidoine,) Gianna Pederzini (Madame de Croissy,) Gigliola Frazzoni (Mother Marie) and Eugenia Ratti (Constance) under the baton of Nino Sanzogno. Next, the French premiere took place in at the Opera on June 21, 1957, with Denise Duval (Blanche,) Regine Crespin (Madame Lidoine,) and Rita Gorr (Mother Marie) led by Pierre Dervaux. The opera premiered in America on September 20, 1957 under the leadership of Erich Leinsdorf via the San Francisco Opera company, which assembled an impressive cast: Dorothy Kirsten (Blanche,) Leontyne Price (Madame Lidoine,) Sylvia Stahlman (Constance) and Blanche Thebom (Mother Marie). Not to be outdone, the London premiere took place on January 20, 1958, and featured Joan Sutherland (Madame Lidoine,) Elsie Morison (Blanche,) Jeannette Sinclair (Constance) and Jean Watson (Madame de Croissy). The conductor was Rafael Kubelik. Last week, the Des Moines Metro Opera company unveiled their production of the English version of the opera with a cast that included Jane Redding as Blanche, Brenda Harris as Madame Lidoine, Blythe Gaissert as Mother Marie, Lindsay Ohse as Constance and Sondra Kelly as Madame de Croissy.
The performances are led by maestro David Neely, and continue through July 10, 13 and 15. For ticket information, call the box office at 515-961-6221 or visit their website at http://www.desmoinesmetroopera.org.