Paris, July, 1794: “Today, 40 individuals had their heads cut off, including 16 Carmélite nuns from Compiègne.”
That brief, contemporaneous note about a mass execution during the Reign of Terror appears in the diary of an old Frenchman, Célestin Guittard de Floriban. Fascinated by the spectacle of regular public executions, Guittard took a clinical interest in the business of the scaffold.
The martyrdom of the Carmélite nuns from Compiègne is a true story that has resonated over the centuries and includes at least one novel, several plays and an opera by composer Francis Poulenc. In the mid-20th century, Poulenc drew on many sources to create “Dialogues des Carmélites.” Since the opera’s premiere in 1957, it has been staged all over the world including the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
The MET Live in HD will present a live-streamed performance starting at 10 a.m. Saturday at Fort Lewis College. The Met’s “Dialogues” will be sung in French and runs three and a half hours with one intermission.
As composer and librettist, Poulenc drew heavily on an unfinished screenplay by Georges Bernanos (1888-1948). Famous for his 1937 literary masterpiece, ‘The Diary of a Country Priest,” Bernanos wrote widely on the struggle between good and evil and was fascinated by a 1931 German novel about the Carmélite martyrs: “The Song of the Scaffold.” Late in life, Bernanos wrote a play titled “The Fearless Heart,” subtitled “The Carmélites.” He also fashioned a screen adaptation that didn’t come to fruition but was published posthumously. In 1953, Poulenc began to adapt Bernanos’s screenplay for the opera.
You can read the Met’s synopsis online, but it lacks the framework of the French Revolution. In effect, the opera begins in the middle of the Reign of Terror. By the early 1790s, extremist revolutionaries despised royalists, suspected religious orders of political conspiracy and, in general, hated every aristocrat in France. Summary trials were held on flimsy evidence, groups of people were sent to the guillotine en masse and the world was, indeed, drowning in bloody chaos.
At the beginning of the opera, the fictional heroine, Blanche de la Force (mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard), has been threatened by a mob. She arrives at her father’s estate, terrified by the collapsing world around her. Overcome by fear, she decides the only escape is to become a nun.
Blanche’s entry into the Carmélite Order of nearby Compiègne doesn’t allay her fears, and her inner conflicts intensify. Her brother, the Chevalier de la Force (tenor David Portillo) arrives unexpectedly and announces his plans to flee the country. Blanche visits the family estate and tragically learns her father has been arrested and guillotined.
The opera then unfolds true to historical events. Revolutionary authorities suspect the Carmélite nuns of political subterfuge. Civic guards arrive, forbid the chaplain from saying Mass, confiscate convent property and arrest the nuns, ordering them to relinquish their religious habits before entering prison. The scene lays the groundwork for imprisonment and a group trial of enemies of the state. All are condemned to death by guillotine.
The opera’s spellbinding conclusion will not be given away here, but you can expect dramatic power heightened by Poulenc’s magisterial music.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.