Opera Profile: Poulenc’s ‘Dialogues des Carmelites’

By Logan Martell

First premiering on January 26, 1957, “Dialogues des Carmelites” is a dramatization of the events surrounding the Martyrs of Compiegne, who remained faithful unto death during France’s Reign of Terror. The work delves into the theme of virtue in a world seemingly rife with corruption, and is notable for its final scene which features the repeated sound of a falling guillotine blade, becoming part of the orchestration as the nuns are summarily executed.

Short Plot Summary

The opera begins during the French Revolution. To escape the violence enacted on members of the aristocracy, Blanche de la Force forsakes the outside world and joins a Carmelite monastery. The Mother Superior corrects her way of thinking; the monastery cannot protect her, it must be her that protects the monastery. Later, as the Mother Superior lies dying, she places Blanche into the service of Mother Marie before passing away in great pain, claiming to be forsaken by God. This deeply bothers the witnesses to her death. Sister Constance wonders to Blanche if the Mother Superior had been given a death meant for someone else, suggesting that a peaceful death will come to someone else. When the chaplain has been forbidden to preach, the future of the monastery seems uncertain. Although Mother Marie wishes to give her life to change the situation in France, the new Mother Superior informs her that only God may decide who will become a martyr.

When the monastery falls under the ownership of the state, a police officer comes, insisting the nuns to give up their religious habits. Mother Marie convinces the other nuns to take a vow of martyrdom; although they all agree, Blanche has run away. Mother Marie goes off to search for her, finding her in the library of her father. Blanche’s father was sent to the guillotine, and so Blanche finds herself at the mercy of her former servants. While Mother Marie is away, the nuns have all been arrested and sentenced to death. The chaplain shares his belief that by being away at the time, God has chosen to spare Mother Marie, thus she cannot martyr herself alongside her sisters. When the time comes for the execution of the nuns, Blanche appears to join the doomed company. As the others are beheaded one by one before the guillotine, Blanche begins to sing a hymn offering her life to God.

Watch and Listen

This production below hails from La Monnaie.


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