Radio New Zealand Concert network
Sunday 16th of October 2016 at 6 - 9 pm
Sunday 2nd of June 2013 at 3.03 - 6.20 pm
POULENC: Dialogues des Carmélites, an opera in three acts
During the French Revolution, the nuns in a Carmelite convent struggle with fate and faith right up to a chilling conclusion on the guillotine scaffold
POULENC: Dialogues of the Carmelites, an opera in two acts. An archival recording from 1982
Blanche........................ Carol Vaness
Chevalier...................... Howard Hensel
Marquis........................ Eric Halvarson
Thierry......................... Frank Levar
Mme de Croissy........... Régine Crespin
Sister Constance.......... Betsy Norden
Mother Marie............... Virginia Zeani
San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Henry Lewis
Marquis de la Force............... David Pittsinger
Chevalier de la Force............ Paul Appleby
Blanche de la Force............... Isabel Leonard
Thierry................................... Keith Jameson
Madame de Croissy.............. Felicity Palmer
Sister Constance.................... Erin Morley
Mother Marie........................ Elizabeth Bishop
Javelinot................................ Paul Corona
Madame Lidoine................... Patricia Racette
Mother Jeanne....................... Jane Shaulis
Sister Mathilde...................... MaryAnn McCormick
Chaplain................................ Mark Schowalter
First Commissioner............... Scott Scully
Second Commissioner........... Richard Bernstein
Jailer...................................... Patrick Carfizzi
Off-stage voice..................... Lee Hamilton
Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orch/Louis Langrée
Poulenc, DIALOGUES DES CARMÉLITES (Dialogues of Carmelites) 12 tableaus + 4 interludes
Background: 15 years before, the Marquis de la Force and his pregnant wife were in Paris for the wedding of the Dauphin and Marie-Antoinette; during a fireworks display a case of rockets exploded; the crowd panicked, and turned nasty; the Marquise was terrified and some hours later she died in childbirth; her child Blanche is pathologically timid; the revolution is afoot and Blanche’s carriage has just been threatenlingly mobbed.
Scene 1. The Marquis and his concerned son, Le Chevalier de la Force, are discussing Blanche’s condition; the father thinks his daughter will grow out of her anxiety-state. Blanche returns safely but shaken; she compares her fear to Christ’s agony in the garden. She retires to her bedroom; she screams in fright at a servant’s shadow. She now tells her father that she wishes to be a nun.
 The Carmelite Convent at Compiègne (1789) [12 m]
The timid aristocrat, Blanche de la Force, is intent on retreating from the world and taking refuge in a nunnery, to overcome her fear. Blanche has presented herself for consecration, and she is interviewed by the Prioress (Mother Superior, Madame de Croissy), who is very sick. Blanche wants to learn detachment and be stripped of her illusions. The Prioress sternly admonishes her that the Carmelite Order is not for mortifying the soul or imparting virtue, but only for prayer, although people who do not believe in the power of prayer regard nuns as imposters and parasites. A shepherd boy might pray sometimes, but they pray all the time. Tenderness and pity are not promoted, but she will pity her (she will later admit to having a special affection for her). Blanche thinks that God will give her strength, but she is told that he will test her weakness not her strength. The Order is not a refuge; it is the duty of the nuns to guard the Order. The Prioress asks the novice if she has chosen her name. Yes, she wants to be known as Sister Blanche of the Agony of the Christ. This strikes a chord with the older woman: Go in peace my daughter.
 The workroom of the convent [11m]
In the scene-change interlude, nuns walk back and forth across the stage (as in a recent production of The Sound of Music in our town). Sister Blanche and another young novice, Sister Constance, are chatting while they work. Constance is chattering away: she went to a family wedding before she entered Carmel; life is fun, and she always enjoys what she is told to do. Her high spirits disturb Blanche as being inappropriate when the Prioress is gravely ill, and she rebukes her companion. Constance suggests that they kneel and offer their own lives for the Mother Superior. Constance does not want to grow old, and believes God will not allow it; she will die young, and she has had a premonition that she will die together with Blanche on the same day.
 A cell in the convent [21m]
Madame de Croissy is dying in agony. She is concerned for the welfare of Blanche, for whom she feels a special affinity, since they both associated themselves with the Passion of the Christ in their novitiate name (see 2 above); she commits Blanche to Mother Marie’s care. She has a foreboding of the chapel desecrated and abandoned. Her dying utterances take on the character of ‘My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Blanche is there to hear her outpourings on death and its terrors.
[5a] The chapel of the convent [10m]
Blanche and Constance are keeping vigil over the body of the Prioress. Blanche is left alone when Constance goes to fetch their replacements; she panics in the presence of death, and the fear that she had hoped to conquer in the convent, overwhelms her. Mother Mary upbraids her for succumbing to this fear, but then tries to calm her, and finally relieves her of duties for the rest of the night.
[5b] The garden of the convent
The two sisters are making a cross of flowers for the grave of the Prioress. Constance expresses to Blanche her theory about the death of the Prioress: it was such a severe trial that God must have given someone else’s death to her (possibly by mistake, like a cloakroom attendant handing over the wrong garment); when the time comes, that person will be surprised to find how easy her death is.
 The Chapter Room [8m]
1789 (you learnt that date at school); this drama began in April, but is it July yet? Judging from these two scenes, the Revolution has started. Mother Mary of Saint-Augustine (Madame Lidoine) is the new Prioress; in her homely way she tells the sisters that troubled times lie ahead; they should continue to devote themselves to prayer, and not be thinking of martyrdom. Mother Mary of the Incarnation is asked to complete the exhortation; she adds the idea of obedience to the duty of prayer. They sing Ave Maria.
 The Parlour [13m]
The Chevalier de la Force has come to speak to his sister Blanche, before he escapes from France. Their father thinks she is in danger in the convent (remember: she is a member of the aristocracy and of a religious order). He asks if she is still afraid; she says she is not; she feels safe in her situation.
When he goes, she confesses to Mother Mary that she lied.
 The Compiègne Convent (September 1792) [15m]
The Revolution is at its height, and the Republic is closing down the religious houses. Priests are considered to be spies for the Pope and for the other enemies of France. The Chaplain tells the community that he has been forbidden to preach, and that his life is in danger. Mother Marie proposes that they all take a vow of martyrdom. The Prioress (Mother Superior) rebukes her: they do not have the right to make the decision for themselves; martyrdom is a gift from God. A mob enters, and the Chaplain withdraws hastily. A commissioner reads out the decree of the Legislative Assembly: the nuns must leave the convent and adopt civilian clothing. Mother Marie acquiesces, saying that they will continue to serve without their religious habits; and she still talks of martyrdom. After the crowd has departed, Blanche is entrusted with a statue of the baby Jesus as the Little King; a sudden noise from outside frightens her, and she drops it (smash!). Obviously she still scares easily, but fear is everywhere.
 The ravaged chapel [13m]
In the absence of the Prioress, Mother Marie urges them to be martyrs, but the decision must be unanimous; when the secret vote is taken, there is one dissenter. Sister Constance confesses to this, and now agrees to join the rest of them. After the vow has been taken, Blanche flees in terror.
Subsequently an officer supervises the evacuation of the convent, and he reminds them it is against the law to live as a religious community. The Prioress is not happy about the vow they have taken. (Note that Mother Marie the instigater is the only one who is not guillotined in the end!)
 The library of the Marquis de la Force [9m]
The family mansion has been pillaged, the Marquis has been guillotined, and Blanche is now a servant to her former servants. Mother Marie comes to take her back (remember that the previous Prioress had commanded her to look after Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ). Blanche is still afflicted with fear, but she is given the address of a safe house.
 A prison cell in Paris [12m]
The sisters have been arrested for anti-revolutionary activities, and all are sentenced to death. Their Mother Superior is with them to comfort them, and she now takes the vow of martyrdom. The instigater of the vow, Mother Marie, is not there, and is distraught, but the chaplain advises her not to join them. Blanche is not in the prison either; yet Constance had dreamed they would die together.
 Place de la Révolution (17th of July 1794) [10m] [plus 4m of congratulations]
Fifteen Carmelite nuns are brought to the guillotine. They sing Salve Regina, and one by one their voices are silenced; the sound of the guillotine blade is heard, fifteen horrendous times. Constance is the last to present herself, and before her death she sees Blanche emerging courageously from the crowd to die with her.