Dialogues des Carmélites

Francis Poulenc
Met Opera on Demand
Metropolitan Opera House, New York
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Erin Morley and Isabel Leonard Credit: Ken Howard
Dialogues Des Carmelites Credit: Ken Howard
Isabel Leonard and Felicity Palmer Credit: Ken Howard

The story takes place during the French Revolution during the Reign of Terror in 1794. Carmelite nuns face a grim choice: renounce your faith or go to the guillotine. Their convent in Compiegne is desecrated and 16 nuns, 3 lay sisters and 2 externs are executed.

One of the most chilling moments is a gaoler reading out all their names and the death sentence. Martyrdom was their reward They were beatified by Pope Pius X in 1906.

Gertrude von Le Fort’s novel The Song of the Scaffold, which told their story, was based on the memoir of a surviving nun. Georges Bernanos wrote a film script which was not filmed but was staged in 1951. French composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) saw a performance and wrote the music and the libretto for his opera. His creativity was interrupted by a breakdown, which had him hospitalised and sedated. Poulenc’s lover died on the day he finished the opera. Dialogues Des Carmelites, one of the most enduring operas of the second half of the 20th century, premièred at La Scala, Milan in 1957.

John Dexter’s formal, minimal production for The Met, New York, one of his very best, dates from 1977 and opens with a stark black-on-white image: the nuns in black habits are prostrate on a central, raked, white cross.

Blanche de la Force (a fraught Isabel Leonard), a young aristocrat afraid of death and afraid of life, determines to become a nun and joins a convent, taking on the name of Blanche of the Agony of Christ. Detached from life, she feels safe in a convent. Her final courage feels tacked-on and is too perfunctory to have the impact it should.

This revival in 2019 was conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The orchestra, the singing and the acting are impressive. Karen Cargill is excellent as the Mother Superior who forces the nuns to take a vote on martyrdom. The most powerful performance is by Karita Mattila as Madame de Croissy who has a long and harrowing death scene. Delirious, she has a vision of the Terror to come. Her agony is both physical and spiritual. Wracked with pain, she feels God has deserted her.

The opera is preoccupied with fear and the fear of dying and facing death with courage. The nerve-wracked score, entirely tonal with a religious text, has a morbid intensity and it is not only Blanche who questions why God would allow Mme de Croissy to die such a horrible death. The answer is reiterated: “we do not die for ourselves alone but for one another.”

The final scene has the Carmelites walking towards the guillotine, one by one. The emotional toll is high.

There are a number of ways of tapping into this opera and others at will. The Met Opera on Demand service offers annual ($149.99) and monthly ($14.99) subscriptions as well as a one-off payment ($4.99) for those who have limited time or only want to watch the occasional opera.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch